Friday, February 02, 2007
Water for Elephants
Before Water for Elephants was published by Algonquin Chapel Hill last May, a number of friends expressed interest in it. Each of them had heard industry buzz from booksellers, who were reading galleys, but I wasn’t sure what about the book intrigued them. In December, a coworker handed me a copy and said, “This book reminded me of why I read.” Even though I avoid popular or hyped books and even though I’m trying to stick to the books on my 39 list, I thought I’d give the first chapter a read over my lunch break.
Sara Gruen’s easy-going storytelling sucked me into the novel. For the length of my lunch break, I was engaged in nonagenarian Jacob Jankowski’s reveries of running away with the circus when he was twenty-one.
Young Jacob’s parents have died in a car accident (I mentioned in an earlier post that this was a common, and annoying, devise in fiction this past fall) the week before he is to sit his veterinary exams at Cornell. Unable to write his exams, and having learned that his parents had mortgaged their home to pay for his education, Jacob realizes he has nothing. So he does what any confused young man in the Depression Era would do—he jumps a train heading out of town.
Later, he discovers that the train is carrying the Benzini Brothers circus, which, with nothing to lose, he then joins. Conveniently for Jacob the circus needs a vet and it falls upon him to care for the menagerie. Soon, the seedy underbelly of a second-rate circus is revealed to Jacob. Behind the performers’ shiny satin-and-sequins costumes is a grimy operation where animals are often fed rotten meat, the hierarchy of workers is brutal, and the owner is prone to having workers chucked off the train in the middle of the night.
It isn’t long before Jacob falls in love with Marlena, who performs with the horses and with Rosie, an elephant that understands only Polish, acquired from a competing circus. Of course, Marlena is married, which is problematic in and of itself, but her husband August is a paranoid schizophrenic who abuses the animals as well as Marlena.
Water for Elephants is a completely engaging read, especially if you long to be transported to another world or to simply experience comforting nostalgia. My circus memories were vividly rekindled. When I was in elementary school, the Ringling Brothers Circus came to town annually. Performed in the high school gym, the event was full of dazzle and daring and hot buttered popcorn and fluffy pink cotton candy.
The story’s ending, heavily criticized in many reviews, was, I thought, pitch perfect.