Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Review: "Water for Elephants: A Novel" by Sara Gruen

"Water for Elephants" has got to be one of the most beautifully and creatively written books from this century. Sara Gruen introduces us to Jacob Jankowski at the age of 90 (or is it 93?, he's not sure) and Jacob at the age of 23. The book is written as though the elder Jacob's memories are jostled back as a circus is setting up the big top next to the nursing home where Jacob now lives.

The flashbacks happen throughout the book as Jacob is sleeping or rambling to a nurse. The book opens with a stampede in a menagerie of a circus and some man with a top hat and cane is either trampled or beaten to death. It only comes clear in the unraveling of the story. And the rest of the book we spend jumping back and forth from the nursing home to Jacob's life during the early years of the depression.

The young Jacob is about to graduate from Cornell with a degree in Veternary Science. He will then go home and go into practice with his dad as the town's Vet. Then the bad news hits. Jacob's parents are killed as their car is run off a bridge. He then has to go back and identify the bodies and put things in order. When he arrives at his home he finds out his parents mortgaged the home to pay for his college. Being the Great Depression, Jacob's parents owe more than their estate is worth and the bank possesses the home and family practice. Jacob returns to school just in time to take his final exams but walks out when he realizes he has no home, no parents nothing. He ends up jumping a train just to leave.

The train he jumps on is a circus train. The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth is a roving fleabag ensemble of "cooch tents," "kinkers," and "hay burners," whose tyrannical m.c, Uncle Al is always on the lookout for "born freaks." Uncle Al is also wanting to be the next Ringling Brothers. After some wrangling Jacob becomes the circus's veternarian, after all Ringling has their own vet. Jacob falls in love with Marlena the Horse Trainer/Performer. The problem is Marlena is married to August the paranoid schizophrenic. August is the circus's animal handler. And is often prone to outbursts of violence which most of the time he takes out on the animals. Especially when the circus gains ownership of Rosie, the elephant. Jacob's love of Marlena and the animals gets him to hate August, but needing the job he stays out of August's way. The anger of August and the love between Jacob and Marlena bring this book to a very exciting climax.

One of the best parts of the book is when we are with Jacob 90 (or is it 93?), the wry look at life and humor in the character creates some really great "comic relief."

Enjoy this book, I did.

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