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Water for Elephants, Masterful Writing in a Modern Day Romantic Tale

“But my final thoughts are tactile: the underside of my forearm lying above the swell of her breasts. Her lips under mine, soft and full. And the one detail I can neither fathom or shake, the one that haunts me into sleep: the feel of her fingertips tracing the outline of my face.”
– Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants (page 156)

Water for Elephants: A Novel is an example of a successful novel with great writing and a plot that challenges the norms of a romantic tale.

First published to unexpected but wide acclaim in 2006, Water for Elephants spent twelve weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list and ranked first on the Barnes & Nobles Paperback Fiction Bestseller List. Popularity of the book spread beyond the US with translations of the novel into over 44 languages. In 2011, the movie Water for Elephants was released and grossed over 113 million USD in ticket sales.

But once you read the book, Ms. Gruen’s success is not so surprising.

Sara Gruen masterfully sets pace by combining scenes and times so seamlessly her words communicate both at the same time. For example, she writes, “The gravy on the meat loaf has already formed a skin.” (Gruen 8). The image does more than indicate a few minutes have passed, it shows a specific picture, that all of the readers will relate to and find disheartening. Who likes gravy with skin? We not only see the clock ticking, we see the retirement home, the thick gravy, the skin, the blandness, and the monotony. Not only is time indicated but a mood is set and the environment is described, all in one sentence.

Subtlety makes Sara Gruen’s writing poignant. While rambling about the downsides of age, the 90 something year old Jacob predictably reflects on aching limbs and muddled minds. At the end of his list, however, he states that age silently spreads cancer throughout your spouse. (Gruen 12). The personal fact is unexpected and catches the reader off guard. Sure age is a terrible thief but the riveting detail shared in the passage is how much Jacob feels cheated that his wife has been taken away from him. Up to that point, the reader isn’t aware he has a wife. In one line, we know he has a wife, she has died of cancer and he is always thinking about her. His love and her omnipresence stabs a knife through the reader’s heart more sharply than an entire paragraph singing her praises.

Gruen further heightens the intensity of her character’s pain by first painting the canvas of the world as it should be, only in the next paragraph to dash the sanctity of this world into a thousand pieces with unexpected news of what the world has become. When Jacob is fetched from a lecture by school administrators, he thinks, “If I get expelled now, my father will kill me. No question about it. Never mind what it will do to my mother. Okay, so maybe I drank a little whiskey, but it’s not like I had anything to do with the fiasco in the cattle—.” In Jacob’s world, this is the worst that can happen and he does not suspect that something far worse lurks ahead.

A few pages later, Jacob draws these two worlds together in two lines, “This morning, I had parents. This morning, they ate breakfast.” A tragic death and departure each cause the characters great pain. This pain can be amplified by accentuating their innocent unexpectedness of events about to occur.

Last but not least, Gruen creates characters who are realistic because they are contradictory. She gets away with this by openly acknowledging the inconsistency:

It’s hard to reconcile this August with the other one, and to be honest, I don’t try very hard. I’ve seen flashes of this August before – this brightness, this conviviality, this generosity of spirit – but I know what he’s capable of, and I won’t forget it. The others can believe what they like, but I don’t believe for a second that this is the real August and the other an aberration. And yet I can see how they might be fooled. (Gruen 229).

Along these lines, Water for Elephants may represent the advent of the modern-day romantic tale. In this new version, the heroine finds herself caught up in a love triangle and discovers true love in the other man. And as if that isn’t change enough, the other man enters the scene not subsequent to her marriage but rather during it.

Water for Elephants combines historical facts with fiction as the backdrop to a tale of romance. Regis’ basic definition of a romance novel is, “…prose fiction that tells the story of courtship and betrothal of one of more heroines” (Regis 14). The novel even fulfills Regis’ eight narrative elements of romance novels. Of course, the lack of a happy-end along the lines of ‘boy-and-girl marry, and live happily ever after, ’ will no doubt prompt many rule-abiding romance readers to picket in protest. But personally, I enjoy the English Patients, Bridges Over Madison Counties and Out of Africas that tell tales of romance that are anything but simple. Life is not simple. And how many times can Nicholas Sparks be considered a writer of “love” stories rather than romances before someone takes a serious look at how have “agreed” to define the romance genre? But I am getting ahead of myself.

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Works Cited
Genre, Writing. “The WD Interview: Sara Gruen |” Write Better, Get Published, Be Creative | Web. 7 Nov. 2011. <>.

Gruen, Sara.Water for Elephants: A Novel. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin of Chapel Hill, 2006. Print.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel
. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2003. Print.

Rich, Motoko. “Water for Elephants – Sara Gruen – Books – New York Times.” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. 5 Nov. 2011. Web. 5 Nov. 2011. <>.

“Sara Gruen.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 5 Nov. 2011. <>.