Book Score: 4
Once upon a time, there was a young, college educated man who, after a family tragedy, ran away to join the circus. But that was a long time ago. He doesn’t talk about those days much anymore. Now an old man, all Jacob Jankowski has are his memories. Memories of his stint as veterinarian with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Of his wife and her liberty horses. Of his friend Walter, the dwarf clown. Memories of trains and lions and elephants and rubes and sideshows. Then the circus comes to town, right outside the assisted living facility where his children have left him, and it all comes back in a rush.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is told in parallel stories. It is gripping when venturing into the depression era circus where the young Jacob and his circus struggle to survive, and compassionate and funny as the present day Jacob wrestles and rages against getting old. The book is thoroughly researched and both settings are presented in rich detail. Photos of real circuses supplement the text.
The romance between Jacob and his love interest, Marlena, seems a little contrived at times, but not to the point of distraction, and Gruen doesn’t beat the reader over the head with the template from the biblical Jacob story she is obviously following. As far as the supporting cast, they are perhaps more crisp than the main characters. Marlena’s charming-when-he’s-not-violently-insane husband August makes a compelling villain. The show’s owner, Uncle Al, also grabs our attention as the shady, driven showman trying to make this crazy illusion work that is the circus during the depression. And from the present day setting, the devoted nurse, Rosemary, is a breath of fresh air.
There’s a reason Water for Elephants is considered a modern classic by many people: the setting is vivid, the story grabs you, and the characters are compelling. What more can you ask for in period fiction?