Thursday, August 13, 2009

"Water for Elephants" by Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants (2006) by Sara Gruen is yet another novel that I picked from Doreen Orion's recommendations. I'd seen it around and the cover looked interesting, and I guess that's really all it takes for me to read a book.

Jacob Jankowski is in his nineties and unhappily living out the end of his life as a dependent in a nursing home. While placed in his wheelchair in hallways and in front of windows, he looks back on the summer of 1931 that he spent working with the animals on the circus, the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Jacob Jankowski was a happy twenty-three year old, about to sit for his finals in Veterinary School at Cornell University when his entire world falls apart. With nowhere to go and unable to deal, Jacob finds his animal knowledge helpful in getting some work at the Benzini Brothers Circus. And he immediately falls in love with Marlena, the star of the equestrian act, and the wife of the often angry and sadistic animal trainer, August.

With some interesting supporting characters including Jacob's "roommate" Walter and his terrier; Camel, the old man who first befriends him; and Rosie, the smart and stubborn elephant that joins the show, there is more to the story than a simple love triangle. What I enjoyed most, though, were the glimpses into the hard, unglamorous life of the circus during the depression. Apparently a lot of the more incredible things that happen in Water for Elephants, Gruen took directly from her history of circuses of the time.

I liked this book: the characters and animals (I'm always a sucker for animals) were interesting, the story kept me involved, and there were some nice parallels tying in the animals in the menagerie and Jacob Jankowski in the nursing home. However, I didn't love this book. The ending tied everything up into a nice, tight little bow, which is where it lost some of it's appeal, creativity, and realism; but I was entertained and learned a bit about the circus so I'm not complaining.

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