Date read: 11.1.09
Read from: Borrowed from my brother
In the midst of the Great Depression, Jacob Jankowski receives news that an automobile accident has killed both of his parents. On top of that, he’s now penniless, as his parents secretly mortgaged their house and his father’s veterinary practice in order to pay for his Ivy-League education. After fleeing his final exams at Cornell in despair, he impulsively jumps a passing train, and discovers that it’s the circus train of The Benzini Brothers’ Most Spectacular Show on Earth. With no better prospects, he becomes the show’s veterinarian, and quickly learns that the circus’ glittering exterior is fueled by squalid, back-breaking labor and a brutal social hierarchy. Jacob finds his only kindred spirit in Marlena, the show’s beautiful horse trainer – who is, unfortunately, married to August, the show’s charming, amoral, and increasingly violent animal manager.
If you couldn’t tell from the description, this is a damn entertaining novel. Though Gruen’s writing lacks elegance and subtlety – I found myself rolling my eyes several times at particularly clunky descriptions, and was uncomfortable with her simplistic treatment of mental illness – it ably delivers drama and action. And ultimately, the most winning aspect is the historical immersion. In spite of the predictable plot and characters, I continued reading just to soak in more of the fascinating details of circus life. Many of the novel’s most memorable elements – from wayward, garden-raiding elephants to pickled hippopotamuses – are in fact based on historical anecdotes, as revealed in Gruen’s afterword. The framing device of a 93-year-old Jacob reliving his past while in an assisted living facility is also surprisingly moving and thoughtful.
Overall, Water for Elephants is enjoyable, if not excellent. If you like old-fashioned showbiz and sordid glitz, you’ll likely have a good time with it.