Just finished: “Water for Elephants”

Water for Elephants
Sara Gruen

This was picked for my book club’s meeting this past week, but the meeting didn’t happen – too many people couldn’t make it, and most of those that could be there were behind on their reading and didn’t think they could finish by Friday (myself included). We’ll be deferring our discussion till our August meeting, where this will be double-featured with The Kite Runner.

From the book cover:

As a young man, Jacob Jankowski was tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. It was the early part of the great Depression, and for Jacob, now ninety, the circus world he remembers was both his salvation and a living hell. A veterinary student just shy of a degree, he was put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It was there that he met Marlena, the beautiful equestrian star married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. And he met Rosie, an untrainable elephant who was the great gray hope for this third-rate traveling show. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and, ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.

My summary:

Jacob Jankowski is on the verge of completing his education at Cornell University’s veterinary school and joining his father in practice when an unexpected change in circumstances finds him literally walking away from it all and joining the circus. It’s 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression, and the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth is one of many circuses traveling the country by train. Jacob’s veterinary training nabs him a place as caretaker to the menagerie animals, but it’s a place that doesn’t seem to fit well into the circus’ stratified social structure of workers, performers, and bosses. He’s given a place to sleep in a partitioned railroad car with the horses and a dwarf clown; he is unofficially “assigned” to share his meals at a table with August and Marlena, the equestrian director and his wife, who performs in the show with ten horses; and he forms friendships with roustabouts and security men.

The fortunes of most of these traveling circuses are uncertain, and when the Benzini Brothers show has the chance to pick up some of the discards of a failed competitor, it gets it first elephant, Rosie, and she brings Jacob, Marlena, and August together in some complicated ways. Jacob recollects this time in flashbacks from his present-day life as a 93-year-old nursing home resident.

Despite the raves this book has received, I was a bit ambivalent about reading it at first, but I’m glad Cherann made it her book-club selection, and I enjoyed it more than I expected to. Jacob has a distinctive narrative voice in both his old and younger selves, and even though there are definitely times you can guess where the story is going, it’s a great ride getting there. The world of the circus and its people in 1931 is portrayed with both grit and glamour. There are some very memorable (and a few quite unlikable) characters here, not the least of which is Rosie the elephant, and some highly dramatic episodes, which come across as entirely appropriate to the setting. The present-day interludes work well in between the flashback telling of the primary story.

The book is st times simultaneously engaging and off-putting, it’s hard to put down, and I found the ending quite satisfying. The photographs of circuses in that era placed throughout the book help in forming a mental picture to go with the story.

“Cherann” rating (not because she selected the book, but because she’s asked me to start using a rating system in my review posts):


Other bloggers’ reviews:
Maw Books Blog
Random Field Notes
Reading Adventures
The Bluestocking Society
So Many Books, So Little Time

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  • I’m glad you liked it. I liked it too. I finished it the Saturday after we were supposed to meet.

    BTW, I think I’m going to drop your book off at Teresa’s tomorrow.

  • i finally read this one and have just posted my review. i enjoyed reading yours.

  • Alisonwonderland – Thanks for letting me know – I’m adding your link!