This book sat on my bookshelf for over a year before I finally got round to reading it last week. I’m so glad I did.
Water For Elephants tells the story of Jacob Jankowski, both at the age he is now, 90 (or 93), and back in his early twenties when he joined a travelling circus. I was a little concerned when I realised that the story flitted between the two viewpoints, I thought I might be about to experience another The Notebook. (that book got 4.01 on Goodreads – why? I just don’t get it.) I needn’t have worried.
At the tender age of 23, in 1920s America, Jacob receives the devastating news that his parents have passed away in a traffic accident. To top it off, he finds out they were broke. He is left with nothing and, in a spur-of-the moment decision, he walks out of his final exams and jumps a freight train. Where it will take him he doesn’t know, but he feels that he has nothing to keep him where he is.
That train, of course, belongs to The Benzini Brother’s Most Spectacular Show On Earth, a travelling circus filled with eccentric characters. And so Jacob’s adventure begins. When the circus staff find out that he was studying veterinary sciences at Cornell, they quickly assign him the role of the show’s vet. He bunks down with an inhospitable clown called Kinko, and befriends the show’s Equine Director, August, and August’s beautiful wife, Marlena.
One thing that struck me about this book, particularly having just finished The Hunger Games, was the strength of the imagery used. Sara Gruen paints a picture of the 1920s circus so vividly that the reader can almost hear the music and smell the scents of popcorn mingling with the animals. She has clearly done her research and covers every aspect of circus life, from the glitz and glamour of the performances under the big top, to the seedy sideshows, the segregation of the performers and the workmen and the notorious ‘redlighting’.
The turning point in the novel is when the circus acquires an addition to their livestock in the form of Rosie the elephant. Rosie drains the circus of funds and energy in trying to get her to perform, but Jacob forms a close bond with the loveable giant. As the conditions at the circus worsen, Jacob and Marlena grow closer. They struggle to find a way to be together and escape the clutches of August, but a magical twist reveals that Rosie the elephant could be the one to turn it all around.
This book is, at its core, a romance; a tale of forbidden love between Jacob and Marlena. But it’s so much more than that too. It provides a believable depiction of America during the Great Depression; it’s a whimsical and magical circus journey and it is a tale of the heartwarming relationship between one man and the animals he cares for. At points the story is gritty; it shows the dark side as well as the light and is so much better for it.
The interception of the chapters featuring old Jacob often felt like being brought back to earth with a bump after the excitement of the circus. Seeing the brave, determined Jacob I’d got to know as an old man, struggling to face the reality of his deteriorating condition, was harrowing. But a second twist in the last few pages of the book made me realise that things really aren’t so bad after all.