Monday, May 26, 2008

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Book Description:
When Jacob Jankowski, recently orphaned and suddenly adrift, jumps onto a passing train, he enters a world of freaks, grifters, and misfits, a second-rate circus struggling to survive during the Great Depression, making one-night stands in town after endless town. A veterinary student who almost earned his degree, Jacob is put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It is there that he meets Marlena, the beautiful young star of the equestrian act, who is married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. He also meets Rosie, an elephant who seems untrainable until he discovers a way to reach her.

Beautifully written,
Water for Elephants is illuminated by a wonderful sense of time and place. It tells a story of a love between two people that overcomes incredible odds in a world in which even love is a luxury that few can afford.

I loved this book and read it in one day. Previously #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List, I'd heard of it, but I didn't really know what to expect. It was well written and evocative of the time: small town America during the Great Depression. Easy prose, well paced, not overly wordy and a simple story. Yes, despite it's brevity and simplicity it was a story that grabs you from the first in the prologue, I could barely put it down.

I've never read a book like this about the circus and I find it all fascinating. At times it was repugnant, particulary reading about some scenes in which the animals were fed rancid meat or beaten, but not overly so, there is not much in that vein. As an animal lover, I wouldn't have been able to read it if it was worse, and this was not over the top, just enough to be realistic and move the story on, bringing further illumination on what is to come later. It also opens a window to what life was like in 1931 during the Depression, where many lived on almost nothing, and starvation was commonplace.

Our main character, Jacob, is a decent young man who finds himself in dire circumstances. The story is told in flashbacks when he's in a nursing home, age 93, as he is recalling what happened to him when he first learns of his parents death while he's about to graduate from Veterinary School at Cornell. (This did remind me of some other books like The Green Mile and The Notebook.) Jacob can't deal with the shock of losing his parents and finding out that they were broke as well. He winds up running off with a circus that happens to be conveniently leaving town. They're in need of a vet and he fills the bill. From there we get swept up in the show life. We learn circus vernacular, the difference between 'kinks' and 'performers' (nothing, it's just the way they're referred to), the hierarchy in the circus, roustabouts and ticket sellers are the bottom feeders all the way up to the owner, Uncle Al, who's hated by everyone, but he runs the circus, and he has the money, so everyone bows down to him and his wishes. You see what the circus train is like, the various cars and what are in them and just tons of stuff - you really feel like you've run away with the circus too!

Jacob's relationship with Marlena and August is reminiscent of the same kind of relationship in another book, Sophie's Choice. The young man falls for the beautiful woman that is involved with a paranoid schizophrenic who at times is the most charming of all men, and at other times, cruel, unpredictable, dangerous - and very jealous! August and Marlena are a team. He's the animal trainer and master in the ring, and she's the performer who rides the horses and ultimately, Rosie, the elephant - the star attraction. You really wind up liking smiling Rosie a lot - I won't give away the plot, but she's integral to it by the end. I learned a few things about elephants in this book (they love alcohol!) and are smarter than you think! And they drink a lot more liquid than is just in a bucket!

The romantic triangle between Jacob, Marlena and August is fraught with danger, it keeps you on the edge of your seat. Although, I never really felt emotionally tied to any of them. I was more like a dispassionate watcher - waiting for the train wreck you know is coming. You're scared for them, but I couldn't help feeling they were playing with fire and wished they would stop.

If you're looking for something a little different and a quick, engrossing read, give this a try. You won't be sorry. It's a slice of Americana that is little known, and a good story too.


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