After hearing rave reviews of Water for Elephants (by Sara Gruen) from friends and family members, I decided to give it a go… despite my clown phobia and the circus aversion that generally results from said phobia. Thankfully, the story did not involve clowns as main characters, and the circus train setting turned out to be far more enjoyable than I anticipated it would be.
The book is quick read; I read it in about 4 days, and its lovely overall. It tells the story of Jacob Jankowski, a young man finishing up veterinary school in 1931, who winds up on a circus train. I won’t say how or why he ends up there, or what happens once he does. That’s for you to find out. The storytelling trades off between Jacob as a young man and Jacob as an elderly man in a nursing home, and I have to say, I just loved the personality of the elderly Jacob. He is so crotchety and funny that it’s endearing. I couldn’t help but love him, maybe more so than the younger Jacob.
The Depression Era circus train setting lends a beautiful backdrop to the story, and Gruen’s descriptions of people, places, and events give the mind enough to go on visually, but room for imagination to fill in the details. With the exception of the intimate scenes… I could have done with a little less detail where that is concerned if you know what I mean. It sort of felt like Gruen didn’t trust the reader’s imagination in the sexual realm. I would think that anyone old enough to want to read Water for Elephants is probably old enough to be able to imagine those sorts of encounters just fine. A few of the sexual encounters seems pretty unnecessary relative to the overall story, and sort of brought the integrity of the book down a notch, but that’s just my own personal prudish opinion.
When you read the book, don’t pass up the author’s note or the Q and A with the author at the end of the book. The Kindle edition has this, and I’m making the assumption that the print edition does as well. The author’s note and Q & and A are both short and sweet and give some interesting insight into how the author ended up writing a Depression Era circus story. In the Q and A, the author mentions that the Biblical story of Jacob is paralleled in the story, but I didn’t catch that at all. And I was raised a Lutheran, so I’m not unfamiliar with my Old Testament. (Hey come to think of it… maybe that whole being raised a Lutheran thing explains my queasiness with the graphic sexual encounters… hmph.) Anyway, thinking about it after the fact, I think that a connection to the Biblical Jacob is a bit of a stretch, but maybe it will be more obvious to you.
I recommend this book to anyone who loves historical fiction, as I do; and in addition, to anyone who loves circuses, animals, dwarves, or love triangles. PGMG rating (I’m coming up with a rating system on the fly here): Four out of five library cards.