I feel like a late-blooming middle schooler on this review. The new kid came to school, was a hit, so popular it made the A-team of actors/actresses in its movie form; all the while I was sitting on the bleachers, engrossed in pursuits that fully ignored the cool kid. Coming to Water for Elephants late, I was wary- it became too big, too popular and too commercial- was it really any good?
The answer is an unequivocal, yes!
If, like me, you ignored this book when it first came out (although judging from it sales, I may have been the only one) it is not too late to run away with the circus.
Water for Elephants is a beautifully written tale, told by Jacob Jankowski, an old man (either ninety or ninety-three) sitting in a retirement home in the twilight of his life, watching a big top go up in the parking lot across the street, reminiscing about his days with a traveling circus. The story jumps from his present situation of declining mental capacity and depression to the beginning of the end of the heyday of the traveling menageries, where our narrator worked as a vet, fell in love with a performer and watched the demise of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.
Jacob’s personal tragedy leads him away from the Ivy League school where he was about to graduate with a veterinarian’s degree and to the Benzini Brothers’ show, where he joins first the ranks of the working men, but soon is embroiled in a web of intrigue with the Marlena, her husband August, and the newest addition to the menagerie, Rosie, an Polish-understanding elephant.
What I loved about this book was the depth of the connections between characters. When Jacob’s world crumbled around him after the sudden death of his parents, his despair is palpable. When Marlena and August’s relationship comes to a tipping point, there is no denying the hurt and betrayal, but also the relief and freedom she feels after making her decision. When Camel must be protected from Big Al’s ruthless “red-lighting” of unwanted workers, compassion and subterfuge take over.
Rosie, the circus elephant, is every bit as much a character in this book as Jacob, Marlena, August or Uncle Al. We feel her deep connections to the various human characters and her pain when she is treated treacherously and abusively. The wheels turning in her head are as obvious as if she were a person placed in similar circumstances. As the pain builds, there is no denying the emotional pain that goes in to her eventual resolution of the situation at hand.
Sarah Gruen’s novel’s sensational popularity is not unearned. It is a tale of romance and mystery, of the happiest place on Earth turned abusive and lethal, and of an old man reconnecting with his roots before it is too late. As I read this tale, I was enraptured, just a like a child would be sitting next to the center ring under the big top, eating pink flossy cotton candy off of a paper stick and slurping lemonade from a plastic cup, and for this, the Water for Elephants earns: