Water for Elephants – Sara Gruen

It must have been five or six years ago that a package arrived from my father containing two books, this one and Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus, and a note saying something to the effect that he was glad I now read literary novels (as opposed to almost exclusively science fiction) and that perhaps I would enjoy these. I took to Dr. Faustus quickly, but this book about the circus didn’t pique my interest. It was around the same time that the movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson (who I still only think of as “that guy from Twilight”) was made and still I didn’t crack it open. That is, until two days ago.

Gruen launches the reader immediately into the action of a circus disaster–the animals escape their cages in the menagerie and stampede into the tent. The rest of the novel, split between events seventy years later and recollections of an old man, works its way back to that disastrous start.

Jacob Jankowski is in his nineties and lives in a nursing home, barely able to walk and his memory beginning to fade about details, but active enough to be a grouch. Particularly when people are lying. His family visits every Sunday and, this week, the circus is in town and it calls to mind events in the early 1930s when, the week of his final exams at veterinary school, he is driven to jump onto a passing train. This train, which is the property of the BENZINI BROS MOST SPECTACULAR SHOW ON EARTH traveling circus, literally sweeps him onto an adventure that both sheds light on the deep-seated problems of the early years of the depression in the United States, while also catching Jacob (and the reader) up in the romance of the performances.

Jacob is forced to begin his journey among the workers, setting up tents and playing bouncer for extracurricular entertainments, but quickly finds a job working for August Rosenbluth, the carnival’s master of beasts, taking care of the show’s animals. However, August alternates between the most charming of men and the most violent. To make matters worse, Jacob is smitten with Marlena, the star of the show and August’s wife. The slow-burn is ratcheted up a notch when the carnival adds to the menagerie a “stupid” elephant, the playful and clever Rosie. The triangle of tension that are Jacob, Marlena, and August, becomes a foursome and the plot careens toward the inevitable collision.

Many beats in Water for Elephants were fairly predictable, some because it is at its heart a love story, but most seem to be the details of Gruen’s rich descriptions foreshadowing events because my guesses did not distract. I hated and had affection alongside Jacob throughout the story, both as a very innocent young man and as an old man once again in need of escape. In short, Water for Elephants is a poignant tour of America where nearly every town looks the same from the point of view of the midway on which there are extreme risks for compassion, but where, ultimately, that is also the only way to thrive rather than just survive.


Next up, I am reading Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (yet another) novel about the brutality of totalitarian states turning on the individuals who helped create them. Already I suspect that I will need to give this type of novel a break for a while.

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