I decided to take a chance on Sara Gruen’s novel Water for Elephants, after reading the rave reviews of the book posted on several social media sites by friends and acquaintances. The truth is, it is summer and I am desperate for a distraction away from my recent obsession with Grey’s Anatomy reruns fueled by Netflix’s instant queue. So I purchased the book and slowly began retreating from my computer screen that stole 42 minutes of my day as I sat captivated by Dr. Owen Hunt’s passionate kissing. Moreover, my favorite animals are elephants, so from the title I was intrigued.
As I turned the pages, I was apprehensive when I realized the circus events were flashbacks from the memory of a ninety or ninety-three-year-old man. I was not sure if I should prepare myself for a story about a man sending a woman 365 unanswered letters after one idealistic summer romance, the pinnacle approach to wooing a woman, according to Nicholas Sparks. Granted, I did connect to the tragically heartbreaking reality of the losing a faithful lover to a deteriorating mental disease, as detailed in Mr. Sparks’ novel, The Notebook. But, I was hoping Gruen would not be repeating the formula and I was pleasantly surprised.
Water for Elephants begins dark and violent as it braces readers for the tumultuous circus atmosphere during the terrible years of the Great Depression. Then Gruen shifts readers’ attention away from the eerie circus to introduce the “ninety or ninety-three year old” protagonist, Jacob Jankowski. He is living in an assisted living home, struggling to reconcile his decrepitude by raging against his helplessness. He has lived a long life and only his memories provide him solace from his aging deterioration. Oftentimes, he reminisces about his wife of “sixty-one years” who he lost to metastasized cancer and the painful relief of being the survivor. Now what remains, or rather what he has left to offer are his stories about joining the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, which he has kept untold for nearly seventy years. Jacob falls easily back into dreams of his unspoken past, thus allowing readers to experience his circus adventures.
Jacob’s story is heartbreaking, but he is unmistakably one of the most human characters I have come across in a while. As a young 23-year-old, on the brink of graduating from Cornell University with a degree in veterinary science, tragedy strikes. His parents are instantly killed in an automobile accident, leaving Jacob grief-stricken and penniless. Thus he leaves Ithaca without looking back, and jumps aboard a rickety circus train.
After his veterinary skills are realized, Jacob is immersed within the backstage culture of the circus. He meets the “freaks,” performers, and the Flying Squadron workingmen. Yet, when Jacob inveigles the job as menagerie doctor, his new responsibilities force interactions with the mercurial animal trainer, August and his stunningly beautiful equestrienne wife, Marlena.
The heart of the novel is centered on the relationship between Jacob and the bull elephant, Rosie, whose financial demand and obstinacy threaten the fate of the Benzini Brothers circus. At this point in my reading it’s 4 a.m. and I have yet to put the book down. Gruen’s research is evident, as she has mastered the circus vernacular, infiltrating words like rupes, roustabouts, and kinkers to describe a world modern society has forgotten. Furthermore, she provides black-and-white photographs to accompany chapters in order to evoke sentiment for the unique circus subculture.
I was captivated by Jacob’s self-narrated memoir, but I have this unmasked fear of finishing books I enjoy. It’s like I’ve entered this world with great characters but once their stories are finished I must leave. I didn’t want to leave the pages that exposed the truth of Jacob and Marlena’s affection or the cruelties of Uncle Al and August. But the book locked me in and all I could do was turn the pages until I reached page 331 and the story was complete.
For interested readers rooting for a satisfying ending, Water for Elephants succeeds. As much as the story focuses on the growth of Jacob’s masculine independence, Gruen did not fail to surrender the lives of the cruel. Yes, the crooks suffer just fates and the wronged are redeemed. Upon finishing the novel, I felt sadness for having to literally close the book on Jacob’s life, but summer has just begun and a new book is waiting for my hand.