Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen: A Short Review

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen: A Short Review by Rickey Pittman

When my friend FB friend Dena, who works for Books-A-Million in Sherman, Texas, recommended this novel, I decided I would give it a read. I knew that Water for Elephants (Algonquin Pub.) was a bestseller, that it had acquired many good reviews, but because it dealt with the circus, I was hesitant. After having read it, I must say that it is one of the best books I’ve read this year.  The beautiful author’s site is here, http://www.saragruen.com/home.html and I hope you will visit it to learn more about her and her other books.

Here is a brief summary of the novel which I lifted from her website:

As a young man, Jacob Jankowski was tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. It was the early part of the great Depression, and for Jacob, now ninety, the circus world he remembers was both his salvation and a living hell. A veterinary student just shy of a degree, he was put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie.
It was there that he met Marlena, the beautiful equestrian star married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. And he met Rosie, an untrainable elephant who was the great gray hope for this third-rate traveling show. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and, ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.

Here are my own personal observations:  I learned much more about the “circus” than I expected. Gruen’s extensive research into the circus and Depression-era America was obvious, as was her ability to describe the human condition–in the words of one reviewer–in the “pathetic grandeur of the Depression-era circus.”
Told from the flashbacks and viewpoint of an old Jacob, the novel reveals the author’s understanding of what it means to be old and a resident of “assisted living” and this, because of dealing with my own father recently, endeared me to the storyline.  One could construct a circus glossary from the terms the author weaves into her story.

This was the last book I will read in 2009, and I think it was a proper and inspiring choice. I’ve only been to one circus–Ringling Brothers in Dallas, long, long ago, but I feel I understand those who work the circus much better. There is an interview with the author included as well as study questions should you read this with a group. There are photographs related to the circus scattered throughout, and so many good lines in her prose that I’m hesitant to try to list them all. Here are a couple of my favorites:

Jacob says he is “observing as the ghosts of my past rattle around my vacuous present” ( 13).

After he first makes love to Marlena, he says, “I am afraid to breathe in case I break the spell” (273).

In short, I found this novel to be exceptional.