I liked this one more than I thought I would! I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction, but Water for Elephants got a lot of hype back in the days, so I thought I’d give it a try. A lot of drama and flair and a forbidden romance, and lots of animals! I’ve never been to a circus, but Gruen’s writing was able to make me feel like I’ve teleported to one. And I’ve always been weak against elderly characters, so I did want to cry several times while reading this.
Jacob Jankowski, having dropped out of Cornell while studying to become a vet because of his parents’ sudden and tragic deaths, jumps onto a train one night and joins the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. He is recruited as a vet for the circus animals and ends up meeting a variety of characters: merciless Uncle Al, the owner of the circus; charming August, the equestrian director; beautiful Marlena, a performer who works with the horses and with whom Jacob falls in love with; scornful Kinko, a dwarf, and his dog Queenie; and misbehaving Rosie, the circus’ first elephant who can’t seem to follow commands.
Water for Elephants features the 93-year-old Jacob, who recounts his exciting and youthful adventures of the distant past while attempting to live the rest of his life out as a grumpy old man in a nursing home. The story of the younger Jacob is a delightfully fast-paced one that, although spotted with tragedies and cruelties, ends up being the older Jacob’s only salvation in a bleak and boring life where he is physically and mentally unable to do what he wants to do. Gruen does a wonderful job in creating detailed description of the colorful and boisterous setting of the circus; for me, the closest thing to a circus that I’ve been to or seen is the zoo (close enough right??) or movies like Big Fish. The feel of this book reminds me of The Great Gatsby, probably because they’re both set in the Great Depression and 1930s America.
It’s hard for me to say whether or not I liked the characters – they were fun to read about, but I couldn’t relate to them… it was like watching a cast in a movie, and I didn’t feel particularly moved by the romantic pursuits. I did, however, feel sad about the acts of cruelty to both animals and humans during the story. I felt more attached to the older Jacob, more so because he’s an old person with old people problems and if I were watching the movie version, I would’ve totally teared up at all the scenes were the older Jacob struggles to eat and move about and throws unreasonable fits and rudeness at the other residents in the nursing home. The fears that the older Jacob has about his deteriorating body and mind are so real, and it was heartbreaking for me to read about his solitude and anguish.
The most enjoyable part of this book, for me, was the ending. I usually don’t like open endings, but this one just made the book that much better for me. Rosie’s role and story in this book was also quite clever and entertaining (except in the very beginning of the book, when she was depicted as more of a monster).
Water for Elephants was a dizzyingly vivid and fast-paced tale of circus workers and performers struggling to make ends meet in a not-so-spectacular decade. Gruen brought together memories and longings of happier times in this work, and it was a bittersweet journey. Oh, and I almost forgot about the NSFW photos! Do not make the mistake I made of bringing this book onto the bus! (Your fellow bus-riders shouldn’t be peeking anyway, but let’s be honest, we all peek at other people’s books.)