“Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen is one of those rare novels that will be read over and over again. It is great entertainment as well as insightful in its portrayal of life in the circus and the on goings in the show-ring.
It follows the life-story of Jacob Jankowski, dividing the book into two perspectives: the ninety-three year old and twenty-three year old of Gruen’s main character. We learn early on in the plot that Jacob is Polish, orphaned, and an almost-graduate of Cornell University for veterinary science. At the tragic death of his parents, Jacob find himself jumping a locomotive which surprisingly belongs to the Benzini Brothers, a circus in the heart of the American depression-era. Jacob is hired both as the circus’s handyman and personal animal care-taker by August, the owner. He encounters Marlena, the lovely woman that works with the horses in the show’s menagerie; Camel, the manager of sorts of the circus laborers; Barbara, the showgirl, and Rosie, an adult Asian elephant who becomes the central component in the novel. By training with Rosie, Jacob becomes close to Marlena and learns a great deal about August. It is also this elephant the brings about the shocking ending to the novel and alters the lives of those involved for life.
Through a leap of faith, Jacob wins the experience of a lifetime as a traveler, a doctor for exotic animals, and a lover. It is easily one of the top-three favorites on my bookshelf for its beautiful imagery, fluent writing style, and challenging plot.
Rating: 5 * * * * *
By: Matthew Benton