Water For Elephants is the story of Jacob Jankowski, now an elderly man, either 90 or 93, he is not sure, who is looking back at his time in the Benzini Brothers Circus during the Great Depression. His parents have both been killed, he is penniless, and can't face his final exams at Cornell University where he is studying to be a vet.
Jacob finds himself jumping on a train, which happens to belong to the circus, and gets hired on as the vet. He finds that he loves the circus animals and stays on for their sake and for the sake of having a job at a time when hobos and tent cities are common. He also finds that he has feelings for the beautiful Marlena, star of the equestrian show, but she is married to the simultaneously charismatic and cruel August. Jacob lives the circus life, traveling by rail, tearing down and setting up the circus day after day. He is a misfit trying to fit in among the misfits.
The book alternates back and forth between modern day Jacob and his life in the nursing home, expounding on how he is treated as less than a full person because he is old and between his life at the carnival, where again people are treated as less than human because there is a depression and money is tight and the show with its animals are more valuable than individual people.
It is obvious that Sara Gruen has done her research without being over the top - the setting feels natural, not forced or like she is giving a history lesson and the photos at the beginning of each chapter are a nice touch.
The characters are well developed. I found that I really felt for them and that I could understand the pecking order in which they are stuck and the desperation of the depression. The evolution of August and the unveiling of his cruelty was amazing. And then there is Jacob, he is forced to grow and figure out what kind of person he wants to be, what he is willing to do and what he stands for. I also felt that Gruen's description of life in a nursing home were eerily real. Probably the least developed character is Marlena.
The language in the book is incredibly rich, in fact, I stopped to savor several passages before moving on for their tantalizing description. I loved the back and forth between present day Jacob and young Jacob and felt it was handled well. In fact, some of the funniest moments are the elderly Jacob in the nursing home. Here is an example of a fun passage that also has some great description:
"So what's on the menu tonight?" I grumble as I'm steered into the dining room. "Porridge? Mushy peas? Pablum? Oh, let me guess, it's tapioca isn't it? Is it tapioca? Or are we calling it rice pudding tonight?"I loved this book - it has an interesting and well developed setting, beautiful language and captivating story and I would highly recommend it to others.
"Oh, Mr. Jankowski, you are a card," the nurse says flatly. She doesn't need to answer, and she knows it. This being Friday, we're having the usual nutritious but uninteresting combination of meat loaf, creamed corn, reconstituted mashed potatoes, and gravy that may have been waved over a piece of beef at some point in its life. And they wonder why I lose weight.
One of the other things that compelled me to read this book is that Sara Gruen started to write is as part of National Novel Writing Month, a challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. I love NaNoWriMo and have participated myself twice and was happy to see that a novelist could participate and write such a successful novel.