Set during the Depression, Water for Elephants is a love story about a naïve vet school dropout and a married circus performer. Our hero Jacob drops out of school after the untimely death of his parents and joins The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth – a circus that strives to be as great as the Ringling Brothers –, where he meets Marlena, the star performer, who’s married to the animal trainer with violent mood swings, August. The story is told through the memories of Jacob as a 90 (or is it 93?) year old man living in a nursing home.
We follow the circus as it goes from town to town and get a glimpse of the behind the scenes workers and the life of the circus. From what I hear, the terms and descriptions of circus life are very accurate.
Sara Gruen’s descriptions were positively graphic. You can smell the rotting meat through the pages and picture Barbara’s breasts swinging every which way as she performed in a special side show. The cruelty shown to the animal by August, especially the elephant Rosie, was a little difficult to stomach.
The most endearing parts of this book are the chapters of Jacob as the old man. The insight into life in a nursing home is both humorous and sad. Jacob wants to enjoy what life he has left and is kept from doing so by the limits of the nursing home. Determined though, he manages to find a way to live as he once did.
As a whole, I enjoyed the book, though I’m not likely to read it again. It was an easy read, and the circus behind the scenes was interesting. However, the plot moved a little too slowly for me, and the naivety of Jacob was frustrating at times.
If you’re looking for a quick read, this story will take you on a journey of friends, moral dilemmas and love.