Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen tells the story of a decrepit old man in a nursing home named Jacob who can’t quite remember whether he is ninety or ninety three. Although Jacob has many children and grandchildren, he feels lonely and abandoned. Through Jacob’s narration we flash back to his life in prohibition-era America where, in the span of about five pages, he goes to Cornell University, learns his parents have died, is told he is bankrupt, becomes homeless and joins the Benzini Brothers circus troupe. The rest of the book explores his travels and the close relationship he forms with an elephant named Rosie and the star performer of the show, Marlena, who is married to the powerful and psychotic animal trainer August.
When I read the first few chapters of Water For Elephants, I was a bit jarred by the lightining fast pacing of the novel. Young Jacob undergoes several life changing moments in a matter of pages before we even really get to know him. It becomes clear however that Gruen is simply keen to establish the premise for the story as quickly as possible and get stuck into the fun stuff: life as a travelling carnie. As the story of Jacob’s circus life unfolds, we periodically jump to his older present day self who has grumpy exchanges with his caretaker and worries about his deteriorating mental state. I give credit to Sara Gruen for being both imaginative and obviously a studious researcher. For someone who is a young female author with no connection to the circus, she convincingly embodies the voice of both a man in the twilight of his life and a 1930s carnie with great aplomb.
The Water For Elephants story begins with a sneak peek at the ending before we begin the journey to reach that climax. We are told from the outset that the Benzini Brothers circus experiences a terrible disaster and as Jacob tells his story, how that disaster comes to happen is gradually revealed to the reader. At the heart of the story is love triangle between the young star-crossed lovers Jacob and Marlena who form a relationship under the nose of her cruel husband August, a paranoid schizophrenic with a wild temperment. I kind of get the feeling that Gruen formulated the characters after popping on a DVD of Titanic. The nature of their relationship is pretty much the same as Jack, Rose and whatever the hell Billy Zane was called in that movie.
Water For Elephants is a brisk and enjoyable book that is set in a fascinating era and follows people that lead wild and hectic lifestyles in an industry that doesn’t exist in the same form today. The tale is slightly let down by an ending that once again rapidly picks up the pace to the level of the opening chapters where things feel rushed, happy endings come together a little too conveniently and what happens to the elderly Jacob is pure hokum.
Still, its not enough to spoil what is otherwise a fun little mystery novel. The story is stacked with dwarves, circus performers, exotic women, wild animals and rampant binge drinking. What’s not to like? For anyone who has even a passing interest the life of Barnum & Bailey era circus life, they should find plenty to like about Water For Elephants.