October 05, 2011

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants amazed me. It was not at all what I expected. I knew it was about a circus, and obviously for the title, an elephant was involved. What I was not prepared for however, was the cruelty it showed. And I don't doubt for a minute, that even though this was fiction, that these atrocities didn't happen in real circuses.

We are introduced to a death in the prologue. While it is fuzzy and hard to tell who's who, we are witnesses to a scene that the narrator, Jacob, has viewed and never forgotten. Mayhem abounds as we discover that the menagerie of a circus is on the stampede.

We are then reintroduced to Jacob, many years later, as he is a resident at a nursing home. He is ninety three, or ninety one, he can't keep it straight and a circus is in town and being set up within sight of the nursing home. This causes him to reminisce about his time spent with the Benzini Brothers circus.

As a runaway college student, after the death of his parents, he finds himself hopping a train that turns out to be part of the circus train. There, instead of being thrown off, he is taken in by an older man named Camel who secures him a job with the circus mucking stalls, which later turns into a position as the circus's veterinarian.

He falls in love with Marlena, the wife of his schizophrenic boss August. While he keeps his love hidden, August, dangerous and unpredictable makes life tough for Jacob in the circus while in his better moments is a best friend to him.

He also makes the acquaintance of Walter, a dwarf clown whom he bunks with and together they help Camel in his time of need. He also makes an unlikely friend in Rosie, an elephant picked up from another failing circus whom he feels a bond with and devastation at her treatment from the cruel August.

Throughout the book it cuts back and forth from Jacob at the nursing home, to his reminisces of the circus and its happenings. One of the ending chapters recaps the prologue, only with more detail.

Gruen does such a marvelous job on this book that you would believe she had traveled with a circus. But she hadn't, all her knowledge came form extensive research and interviews. The result is this novel, gritty and real and it keeps you at the edge of your seat wondering what is going to happen. Jacob's tale is one I could read over and over again. By far this turned out to be one of my favorite books. And the ending, well in hopes to get you reading this book, the ending was perfect and real fitting for such a wonderful tale. Its well worth the read.

Water For Elephants
Published in 2006
331 pages

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