Ladies and gentleman, step right up! Water for Elephants is a spectacular novel!
The story takes place during the beginning of the Great Depression. In the prologue, we witness a tense conversation interrupted by an act of circus mayhem. The band starts playing “Stars and Stripes Forever,” which is the cue something has gone utterly wrong. In a whirlwind of escaping animals and panicking patrons, we realize Jacob is in love with a woman named Marlena. A murder is committed. A secret is kept.
The story is told from the viewpoints of both 23 year old Jacob, and an older version of himself. Jacob as a grumpy senior is introduced to us at the age of 90 (or maybe 93). Residing in a nursing home and craving normal food, his mind is mostly there but starting to slip. One uneventful afternoon, Jacob and the rest of the seniors find out the circus is coming to town.
We are taken back 67 (or maybe 70) years earlier, sitting with young Jacob during lecture. Here, during his last year of vet school at Cornell, he receives news that both parents have died during an automobile accident. After burying them and learning there is not a cent left to their name, he walks out of his final exams. With nowhere to go, he jumps a train into a new set of rules, personalities, and wonder.
Without realizing it, Jacob has run away to join the circus.
While I would not rate it five stars, I did enjoy the novel. It’s obvious Sara Gruen conducted excellent research on the traveling circus. Once a technical writer, her style is direct, straight forward, and informative. The story itself is unique and interesting. The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth rides from town to town, performing across the nation during a time of prohibition and hobos. A time when many felt lucky just to eat. Mindful that work is scarce, the members of the circus are at the mercy of Uncle Al, the cruel circus owner.
Performers, workers, and animals form a unique family. Trust, love and compassion are not missing from the dysfunctional group.
We eventually catch up to the prologue. However, not without a twist. A quote in the book, placed before the prologue, takes on a new meaning.
During the final chapter, we join 90 (or maybe 93) year old Jacob. The grand finale of his days come full circle for a perfect ending to the performance of his life.