Water for Elephants
I had avoided Water for Elephants for a while for my usual “it’s-too-popular-how-good-can-it-be?” reasoning. Several friends told me I was missing out and that I ought to just read the thing already. That it was beautiful, well-written and maybe not exactly what I expect. They were right.
I was completely swept up by this love story that spans the decades. Not a mushy, sappy book by any means, Elephants manages to avoid the pitfalls of a typical romance novel by introducing us to characters who are grounded in the reality of their situation. Yes, it’s fantastical – not many of us have experienced the life of someone in a travelling circus during the Depression – but, as a reader, you are able to immerse yourself in the dusty, hot details that make the story come to life.
When we first meet Jacob Jankowski, he is unhappily residing in a nursing home. The book switches between the present in the home and Jacob’s past, travelling with an also-ran Barnum & Bailey’s circus across the US. There he meets any number of fascinating characters, some of whom have his best interest at heart and some whom you wonder if they have any heart at all. Of these people, it is the beautiful rider Marlena and her husband, the volatile head trainer August, that have the most direct impact on his life. But they are not the only important characters: Rosie, the elephant, also plays a major role in Jacob’s life.
Love triangles abound in this book and the author does a lovely job of making the conventional a little less so. There are so many people in this book with whom the reader can identify, though it is through Jacob’s eyes we see this world of poverty, transience, magic, love and heartbreak. The major plot points are by turns uplifting, shattering, funny and heartbreaking. Having now read it, it’s no surprise why it’s done so well and why Hollywood came knocking. (I opted not to see the movie as I wasn’t sure it could do justice the world that Gruen painted.)
If you haven’t picked this book up already, I highly recommend you do. It’s a fast read about a fascinating microcosm of society. It might make you want to run away and join the circus…