Wednesday, April 7, 2010
Author: Sara Gruen
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Paperback, 331 pages
Date Published: April 9, 2006
Description (Taken from Goodreads)
"Though he may not speak of them, the memories still dwell inside Jacob Jankowski's ninety-something-year-old mind. Memories of himself as a young man, tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Memories of a world filled with freaks and clowns, with wonder and pain and anger and passion; a world with its own narrow, irrational rules, its own way of life, and its own way of death. The world of the circus: to Jacob it was both salvation and a living hell." Jacob was there because his luck had run out - orphaned and penniless, he had no direction until he landed on this locomotive "ship of fools." It was the early part of the Great Depression, and everyone in this third-rate circus was lucky to have any job at all. Marlena, the star of the equestrian act, was there because she fell in love with the wrong man, a handsome circus boss with a wide mean streak. And Rosie the elephant was there because she was the great gray hope, the new act that was going to be the salvation of the circus; the only problem was, Rosie didn't have an act - in fact, she couldn't even follow instructions. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.
An unexpected bend in Jacob Jankowski’s seemingly straight road makes him abandon the only life he ever knew and start anew with a second-class circus that is barely managing to make it from city to city. The 23 year old Jacob lands aboard a train housing The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth and the experience is something he’ll never forget. Fat ladies, dwarves, lions, and Rosie, an elephant that manages to find a way into Jacob’s heart, give the newcomer a lifetime of memories. As the new circus veterinarian, Jacob falls in love with the amber-eyed Rosie. The majestic animal carves a place out in his heart and he can’t seem to let her go. The same is true for Marlena, a beautiful equestrian rider, who happens to be married to August, a man with a temper and a severe case of mood swings. The Benzini Bros circus is run by Uncle Al, a man who is more than willing to get his hands dirty during this Depression era tale. Jacob learns firsthand what Uncle Al and August will do and his tale on the traveling circus has just as much pain and anger as any circus has joys.
Water for Elephants is an exquisitely written tale set during the 1930’s Depression. Sara Gruen has crafted an unforgettable story through Jacob and The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Jacob is such a flawed character with so much confusion, sadness, longing, and joy; it is impossible to not be taken by him and invested in his tale. The chapters cut back and forth between a 23 year old Jacob learning the ropes as a new vet for the Benzini Bros and a 90-something year old Jacob, These alternating chapters were so meticulously weaved together and flowed so well that it was nearly impossible for me to stop reading.
After the unexpected death of his parents, Jacob becomes the accidental veterinarian to the Benzini Bros menagerie. Jacob’s position in the circus lies somewhere between the working men and the performers, so he is able to see how both sides live. Marlena comes into Jacob’s life and he is instantly taken. His on again-off again friendship with Marlena’s husband, August, forces Jacob to hold his feelings back, but one slip changes everything. August is an easily angered man and the elephant Rosie has already experienced his brutality. After a celebratory night turns into a misunderstanding, Jacob comes to some life-changing realizations. The young man must then think of how best to save himself, his Rosie, and so many others aboard this second-rate traveling circus train.
Sara Gruen has done something incredible with Water for Elephants. She has managed to create a vastly rich and vivid world that hosts delightfully riveting characters. August is sometimes charming brute with a mean streak and an even meaner fist. Uncle Al looks the part of a ringleader, but behind the scenes he is more than willing to ring a few necks. Walter comes off as angry, uncaring dwarf of a man, but his soft side is so much bigger than he lets people see. Marlena is an astonishingly beautiful woman who has a fire burning in her eyes. And then there’s Jacob. He is witty, loving, angry, naïve, but above all else, he is passionate. Jacob is young and he has no idea where his life is going or what he’ll be doing in years to come, but he knows what type of person he wants to be. His passion for life and for Marlena and the animals on the circus radiates right off of the page.
Water for Elephants is not simply a story about a circus traveling Americana. It is a story of a man who just happens to be a part of a traveling circus and how 3 months shaped the man he would become. Jacob Jankowski was planning on becoming a veterinarian and at the ripe old age of 91 (or 93), he is able to recall how those 3 months and the people he met, changed his life forever.
Sara Gruen has amazed me with Water for Elephants. It's been a long time since I've read such an engrossing and unique story with an unforgettable backdrop to even more unforgettable characters. At times, the story can be unexpectedly cruel, but those moments are countered by incredible kindness and overshadowed by beautifully honest and realistic characters. Water for Elephants has a magical aura that leaps off each and every page and I recommend that everyone open the book and “Let the show begin!”
Opening line (from the prologue): Only three people were left under the red and white awning of the grease joint: Grady, me, and the fry cook. ~ pg. 1
Opening lines (from chapter 1): “I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other.” ~ pg. 5
Favorite lines (I couldn’t pick just one): So long ago. So long. But it sill haunts me. ~ pg. 4
In seventy years, I’ve never told a blessed soul. ~ pg. 4
“For this old man, this is home.” ~ pg. 331
*This review is my honest opinion and I received no monetary compensation from it.