Jacob Jankowski is on the verge of graduating from Cornell and joining his father’s veterinary practice in 1931. When tragedy strikes, he finds himself totally unable to focus on the future. Feeling restless in Ithaca, he hops the first train he comes across, never expecting that it is a circus train- the train belonging to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Brought on board to be the veterinarian for the animals, he quickly learns that the Benzini Brothers show is no Ringling Brothers, and circus folk, like the rest of society, have a social hierarchy. As the vet, Jacob falls higher into the hierarchy than the roustabouts and sideshow performers, but it doesn’t buy him much respect from either side. As the summer goes on, he finds himself settling in to circus life and falling in love- first with Marlena, the wife of menagerie manager August, and then with Rosie, an elephant Benzini acquires from a failed circus. Jacob ultimately finds himself inexorably intertwined in the rapidly growing tension among the circus workers and management- and the rapidly dissolving marriage of Marlena and August.
Water for Elephants is one of those books I’ve been eyeballing for years. It’s been on my shelves since 2008, and I remember considering it back when it first came out and it was on the shelves at the library where I worked. Now, four years later, I’m wondering what on earth took me so long. Sara Gruen’s got a gift for creating vivid images, and I sped through this book, eager to see how it all played out.
The novel flashes back and forth between 1931 and the present day (where an elderly Jacob is living in a nursing home and eagerly awaiting a visit from his family, who will be taking him to the circus). I frequently found myself getting swept away by the images and story in the 1930s and jarred by the transition back to the present time. The lush images of Marlena with her liberty horses and a night out at a speakeasy give way to a pervasive feeling of sadness as the older Jacob struggles with feeling disconnected from his family.
I absolutely loved this book, and if you’re one of the few who hasn’t read it yet, I definitely recommend you do!