sometimes witty book reviews
Title: Water for Elephants
Author/Year: Sara Gruen, 2006
Found: Upon the recommendation of a friend
Read time: Leisure reading, one week
This is the story of Jacob Jankowski. A Polish American, aged 93, living in a nursing home. Over the period of a week he and the other residents watch the activities of a small circus setting up across the street. The reader follows Jacob’s day dreams and nightmares as the much anticipated circus outing inches closer and closer. This outing which means more to him than any other resident of the sterile, static aged care facility.
More than seven decades earlier, we discover, Jacob dropped out of his veterinary studies at a prestigious college during the very final exams. His parents had died suddenly in a car crash, he had nothing. He ran away and somehow ended up on a circus train. Within a few hours of landing himself there he’s almost killed. This is a recurring theme.
Having proven his nerve, smarts and usefulness as an almost-vet, Jacob is recruited and quickly becomes indispensable to the daily workings of this huge, glittering road show. Soon though, Jacob becomes much too interested in the equestrian director’s wife Marlena. Her husband, August, is out on a mission for vengeance. Complete with top hat, tails and an elephant in pink sequins called Rosie whom everyone but Jacob thinks is the stupidest animal on the train. The plight of Jacob, Marlena and eventually Rosie is rudely interrupted by flashbacks to reality – 93 year old Jacob being bullied by nursing staff, told off and then denied his trip to the circus when relatives don’t front.
Gruen’s characters are larger than life, bedazzling and at times horrendously vivid. An historical novel, it is pleasing to have so much researched detail and period accurate slang throughout. There are a few too many random descriptions of genitalia (human and otherwise), but they are outweighed by the pace of the action and other hilarious anecdotes. Gruen keeps the suspense of the young-Jacob saga and the poignant sadness of the old-Jacob plot well balanced. One is left in the juxtaposition of hoping Jacob (23) gets away from the circus but also (now aged 93) manages to get himself back there.
Do not watch the movie first. It is a gross reduction of an already quite short book. Or maybe I just really don’t like Edward Cullin (aka Robert Pattinson) starring in…anything.