Following the risky and slightly perilous days of Jacob Jankowski during his time working as a circus veterinarian in America's Depression, Sara Gruen introduces us to a world of eccentricities, close calls, and a forbidden romance that keeps readers turning pages. This book is as wild and as much of an unparalleled experience as a circus itself, with its timelessness and notably unique characters. Gruen goes about her double narrative of young Jacob, trying to make it as a veterinarian on a traveling circus whilst falling head over heels for his bosses' wife, and Jacob as a withering old man, now abandoned in a home for the elderly; two perspectives from the same character, though warped by age. Parent-less, confused, and barely into the world of adulthood, young Jacob walks out of his final Cornell exam, only to hop a train late one night to be sucked into a world of performers, stunt men, and the love of his life.
Sara Gruen truly has mastery at her hands when it comes to word painting, and put an immense amount of effort into making this work of historical fiction factually accurate while simultaneously interesting to follow. Her prose takes on different phases, from elegant, to furious, to lustful, and serene; if you're looking for a book that makes you feel as hopeless, as excited, and as frustrated as the characters, then this is the novel for you. In the interview included at the end of the book, Gruen recounts in full detail the writing and research process used to perfect Water for Elephants, which only goes to show the work that went into creating the world of The Benzini Brother's Most Spectacular Show on Earth into a seemingly real world, writhing with life. There's the Depression Era; gilded, sequined clothes, the prohibition, and all of the glamour of the spotlight. It's the perfect backdrop for the romance of Jacob and Marlena, whilst they try to make it with all of the odds against them.
This book weaves a story of not only a romance that is fresh and authentic, but it also speaks on the condition of the outcasts; the bearded women, the dwarfs- and the familial bond they form with Jacob in order to beat their own circumstances.The narrative of this book is likely its most stunning quality, as it entices the reader to figure out how Jacob and Marlena's romance will take form amidst the chaos of circus life and stern bosses, yet also develops the friendships Jacob makes with his fellow gang of outcasts- for the sake of example- going to the ends of his wits to find a better life for dwindling Camel, an ailing rube who will get 'redlighted' (tossed from the moving train at full speed) since he's of no use any longer. I have to praise Gruen for her artistry in creating dynamic relationships in her characters- Jacob's passion for his career, his tenderness, and his willingness to protect the people he loves is brilliantly told, as well as his heroic actions in ridding of the despotic front man of the circus, August, who stands in the way of Marlena and Jacob's love. This book's magic was all in the character development, and the faded-light setting of the circus.
While the development of the characters was delivered fantastically, the people we come to know were rather flat. Many of them seemed to be thrown in for stock or for support, but contributed nothing to the moving plot of the story. For example, many of the rubes, or the low caste dirty workers, are thrown into the narrative for dimension, but add no solid purpose to Jacob's mission. While I adore the way Gruen's character's interact with each other, I did find them somewhat square, and typical. And while I appreciated getting an insight on to how Jacob thought and felt about his situation thanks to his first person, I thought his narration could be rather whiny at times, and seemed forced. Though, these minor scratches don't dim the shine of Water for Elephants as a whole in the least.
This novel was adapted to the screen in 2011, and sells to audiences who want the love, the tension, and the romance of the big screen; not for anyone who gets bored of ardor quickly. While there is not much action, there is certainly an entertaining story to follow, and is an easy, relatively average read, good to carry along with you on the road to work up your sense of wonder. This novel is masterfully put together with a spectacular, showtime setting, characters that create bonds with each other and the reader, and passion that goes uneclipsed; it forever has a spot among my top bookshelf, to say the least.