Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

via Algonquin Books, workman.com

Water for Elephants is a book I have wanted to read for a very long time. Unfortunately for me, it has also been one I’ve managed to avoid buying for a very long time, too. Something to do with all the hype surrounding it—sometimes I just don’t want to read something everybody and their mother is already gushing about. But, speaking of mothers, mine had gotten a copy from the library and spent a good part of a freakishly warm Chicago spring day snorting and laughing on the front porch while she read. I had no choice.

I wasn’t sorry. Chapter One introduces us to our main character, Jacob Jankowski in the present day from the hallway of his nursing home; “Either there’s been an accident or there’s roadwork, because a gaggle of old ladies is glued to the window at the end of the hall like children or jailbirds.” As it turns out, there is a circus setting up right outside. The presence of the enormous canvas tent sends Jacob’s mind reeling to a time long past, and thus begins our story.

We are taken back to the end of Jacob’s final year at veterinary college, during the Depression, a time when his parents have mortgaged their house to pay for his education and are accepting beans and eggs in lieu of payment for their services as veterinarians. A gruesome accident takes both of Jacob’s parents just before his final exams, and unable to concentrate on the test booklet on his desk, he walks out of his exam and keeps walking until dark. He comes across a dark set of train tracks, and desperation prompts him to hop the train that comes barreling out of the darkness; the decision changes the course of his life. Discovered and taken in by some working men on the circus train, Jacob is introduced to the wild, transient life of the circus.

The story has its ups and downs as Jacob falls for Marlena, the wife of his psychotic, mercurial boss (Uncle Al), and she seems to return his feelings. Along the way, the show takes in an elephant who seems clever enough, but refuses to listen to the commands of Uncle Al, resulting in some gut-checking animal abuse. Jacob, like any decent human, can’t stomach the way Uncle Al treats Rosie the elephant (which, incidentally, is similar to the way he treats his wife Marlena). The circus drives on as Jacob falls more and more for the two very different girls, driving him to become more and more bold in his actions.

I am not going to give away the climactic ending, but I still haven’t told you everything.

The way this story is told may not be unique—a nursing home prisoner battles through the ghosts of his past—but the way Gruen narrates through the eyes of a sharp-witted man who sees his essence draining away in a land of Jello salad and ubiquitous pills makes you sympathize with Jacob and silently root for him to damn them all and escape to something better. He’s certainly feisty enough.

The characters in Water for Elephants are real and likable. A motley crew of rag-tag performers and laborers, each has his own place in the circus hierarchy. True, it may be a love story, but isn’t some lovey-dovey sap story that you read with a box of tissue. This is a story that has sex, violence, joy, misery and grit. I think part of this owes to the fact that our narrator is a young man in his 20s, as well as the fact that life on the circus route was rough.

Bottom line: I can’t think of anything off the top of my head that I didn’t love about Water for Elephants, with the exception that it concluded with a pretty convenient ending, which I know bothers some readers. The journey to get there, however, was one helluva ride. Don’t wait as long as I did. Go pick up a copy!

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