Book review: Water for Elephants
March 30, 2011 Leave a comment
This week I finished reading Sara Gruen’s “Water for Elephants“, which had on my to-read list for quite some time. It tells the story of Jacob Jankowski recalling his time spent traveling with a rag-tag circus as a veterinarian during the depression. I was drawn to the book because it seemed like an interesting, dark take on the circus, and from the description I thought I would find some interesting characters to read about.
The story starts off with Jacob in his early 90s, sitting in his wheelchair in the hallway of the old folks home where he spends his days. He’s a grumpy old man who, now in the dining room with his fellow neighbours, gets into a disagreement with a newcomer who claims to have been in the circus; something Jacob calls him out on, and they end up arguing. The disagreement causes Jacob to be sent back to his room where we eventually are brought back in time to when he was 23, and his tale of how he came to be the vet in the circus.
I didn’t expect this element, and I couldn’t help but draw parallels to “The Notebook“, which led me to think something sad would be revealed. That aside, the alternating chapters from young to old Jacob were tied together nicely with the younger one’s adventure in the circus and the elder one’s eagerness to go.
We’re introduced to younger Jacob who is nearly done studying to become a vet at Cornell and follow in his father’s business when one day he is given the shocking news that both of his parents had died in a car crash. This sends Jacob into a state of shock, and after he traveled home to identify the bodies, later found out that he didn’t have a place to live or a penny to his name. Spiraling out of control, he eventually finds himself hopping on a train, that turns out to be a little more than what it seemed at the outset, and begins a bond that will last a lifetime.
Jacob is quickly thrust into the subculture of a traveling circus where he must learn the ropes quite quickly. Once it is found out that he has an education, he is given the position of veterinarian to the many exotic animals. In this new position Jacob is introduced to August, the unpredictable menagerie director who quickly attaches himself. Jacob’s first official duty is to look after an ailing horse of the equestrian act led by August’s wife, Marlena, whom Jacob has an obvious affection for from the start.
The longer he stays on the troupe, the more Jacob becomes accustomed to the ways of the circus, as well as August’s dramatic mood swings. This becomes more apparent after Uncle Al, the owner of the circus, buys an elephant named Rosie from another failing production. Rosie appears to be a worthless performer who doesn’t respond to August’s commands and constant smacks with the bull hook. The bull also gets into some trouble which causes August to brutally beat her and leave her bloodied. At this point the relationship between Jacob and August already had some tension, but this put it overboard. It continues to spin out of control as Jacob’s affections for Marlena grow.
An aspect that made the story interesting for me was how Gruen treated the interactions with the animals of the menagerie. She gave them a sense of anthropomorphism where we see human traits in Rosie as she smiles, or in Bobo the monkey who is described as sleeping like a human, sprawled out on his back with his arm over his eyes. It made the animals into characters I felt for when they got hurt or laughed with when they did something funny. Jacob also felt this bond, and ultimately it helped him understand the love for animals that his father had. He would do anything to help them, even if it meant his family couldn’t afford to pay for their mortgage.
While not a life-changing novel, Gruen made something that could have been a simple love triangle into an interesting story. It also managed to have some commentary on the state of the elderly and how they’re treated by many family members. While it may take a lot to look after the older generation, it doesn’t mean they are not important and even have some amazing stories to tell if you’d listen.
I would definitely recommend it as a quick read (331 pages) that you’ll enjoy and not want to put down – I give it a 4/5.
The upcoming movie stars Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattenson. I unfortunately couldn’t get them out of my head as the characters, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be when I first started the book. Here’s the trailer: