The heart is always story

Note: there are no spoilers of Six Feet Under or Water for Elephants in this post, so feel free to read it. I’m talking about them both, but I’ll be careful not to give anything away.

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.

4 thoughts on “The heart is always story

  1. Oh, I was late coming to Water for Elephants, too. I read it in Januray, and like you, I absolutely loved it. I passed it to my mom and every few days bugged her to see if she was reading it yet. I couldn’t wait to see what she thought. It’s been a banner year for reading. I have read so many books already that I couldn’t believe I waited so long to read. Have you read The Kite Runner yet? I had the same resistance to it you described about WFE, but once I started I could not put it down.

    I recently read Bel Canto at your suggestion. I have to say that while I really liked it, the POV distance was a little unsettling for me. Very unique, however.

    So many books, so little time!!!!

  2. Gail Clark

    Well, as a self-confessed TVholic, I must tell you that I had that same sort of reaction to the death of Michele Lee’s first husband at the beginning of the first season of Knot’s Landing (precipitated by a failed contract negotiation, and therefore with NO warning), and also by the death of Gary on Thirtysomething, totally out of left field on the same episode where I was expecting to find out Nancy’s cancer was back. In the latter, I felt as though I’d lost a real friend, so attached was I to those characters. And in both cases, it was just a accident out of the blue, as so often happens in real life. These were both in the pre-spoiler days when you can find out pretty much everything before it happens, and when Gary died (hit by a car on his bike), and his best friend got the call while at the hospital with Nancy and her husband, the scene was heartwrenchingly subtle and real – no histrionics, just real disbelief and kicked in the gut grief. And, in the case of both shows, the aftermath of the deaths on family and friends were addressed for several subsequent episodes, rather than just moving on. Just like real life.

  3. admin

    I also loved Water for Elephants. I thought that the ending was an incredible twist and I loved the animal characters too. I read it last summer when I was supposed to be camping and I’ve recommended it heavily since. And even without the ending, the stories were all so clever. It’s cool that they were based on teh yarns that she’d heard from circus people.

  4. What a perfect description, “A rip roaring good yarn.” That is EXACTLY what it is. Pure storytelling.

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