Over the weekend, I indulged another three episodes of Six Feet Under. In one of them, a major character suffers a surprising illness and is hospitalized. It’s sudden and shocking and doesn’t make any sense. But it is even worse when that character dies. Just dies, without fanfare or warning. I was a little bewildered and went upstairs to tell CR that I had to watch the next episode to see how they’d get out of this little pickle. But, as all of you who have watched it know, there is no redemption or meaning in any of it. The character is suddenly gone, just as happens sometimes in real life. Even as I was sobbing my eyes out (and two days later, I still had a slightly transluscent left eyelid), the writer part of my brain recognized that I was reacting exactly as I should, that the writers got it exactly right. They played with life and fiction expections and created one of the most powerful episodes of television I’ve ever seen.
But I was a wreck most of the next day. Profoundly affected.
To shake off the sense of loss, I immersed in Water for Elephants, by Sarah Gruen, which I know I am very late reading. It always amazes me that it sometimes takes me so long to get to books I will love. This one has been on bestseller lists forever, but I kept worrying that there would be terrible things happening to animals, and I’m sorry–kill humans and I’ll eventually get through it. Put cruelty to animals on the page, and I’m wrecked. (As Mary Jo Putney once told me about a book in which I was contemplating the possibility that a particular cat, a very, very, very old cat might need to pass away before the end of the book, “never, never, never kill the cat.”)
Plus, it had a cover that didn’t particularly appeal to me. It looked dark and self-conciously literary and clever and it made me feel tired to even think of reading it. I changed my mind after reading an article about the author, who is a passionate animal rights supporter, and therefore would not likely do anything too terrible. I also met a woman who loves elephants with an abiding passion, and someone sent me the NY Times article about the elephants in Africa and….well, anyway. One thing led to another and I finally bought the book.
And it is NOTHING like I expected. It is a little dark, but nothing about it is self-conscious. It’s a rip-roaring good yarn, a great story about great characters who deserve to win, and conqueor evil along the way. The animals are characters in their own right, from a scruffy little dog to a toothless lion and a giant elephant.
Last night, I was racing toward the end of the novel, fearing the worst, oh no oh no oh no, and–oh, I just can’t tell you, but it is one of the most satisfying endings I’ve read in ages. It is exactly right. It is an absolutely perfect novel and you really must go read it yourself if you have not done so.
What both of these experiences made me remember is that story is everything, and it isn’t a simple or shallow or throw away thing. Story has power.
From Publishers Weekly
With its spotlight on elephants, Gruen’s romantic page-turner hinges on the human-animal bonds that drove her debut and its sequel (Riding Lessons and Flying Changes)—but without the mass appeal that horses hold.