Monday, December 15, 2008

Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants is another of those novels that I somehow managed to miss reading when it was at its peak of popularity, this time by well over two years. But I’m here to tell you that, in the case of Water for Elephants, it is definitely better late than never.

Even in Depression-era America, Jacob Jankowski is doing pretty well for himself. He is a Cornell-trained veterinarian who only needs to sit for his final exams to make it official. He thinks he is in love but his lack of experience with the ladies means that he is more likely to be in lust than in love. For him, life is still pretty good.

But things change sometimes when one least expects it, and for Jacob change comes in the form of a tragic traffic accident that claims the lives of both his parents. As bad as that is, it gets even worse when he learns that he has also been left destitute because his parents mortgaged everything to pay his Cornell tuition, and Jacob finds that he cannot sit still even long enough to finish his exams. Wanting to get away from it all, he hops the first freight train that comes along, avoids getting thrown back onto the tracks, and soon enough finds himself a member of Benzini Brothers traveling circus.

Sara Gruen lets Jacob tell his own story by alternating the first person narrative of ninety-something-year-old Jacob, now living in a nursing home, with the voice of twenty-three-year-old Jacob as he experiences his summer with the Benzini Brothers. And what a story it is because the Benzini Brothers circus is not exactly The Ringling Brothers show and only circus owner, Uncle Al, tries to pretend that it is. Everything about the Benzini Brothers is second rate: the ragged animals in the zoo’s menagerie are badly treated and lucky to eat once a day, the roustabouts and other workers are not paid consistently, the freaks are usually fakes or not all that freakish in the first place, and the girly show performer has been known to take paying customers after show hours.

Jacob manages to catch on permanently with the show even with his incomplete veterinarian credentials and all goes relatively well until he falls in love with two ladies: Rosie, the elephant who joins the circus after he does, and Marlena, the beautiful young equestrian performer unfortunately married to the sadistic August, a man who beats both Marlena and Rosie.

Gruen paints an unforgettable picture of life in a small-time Depression-era circus, an environment filled with filth, underfed animals and humans, cruelty, alcohol abuse, varying degrees of crime, lust, and callousness. Jacob, appalled at what he sees and what he learns about August, Marlena and Uncle Al, fights to maintain his sense of decency in a world he never knew existed, but his love for a married woman and his guilt at not doing more to defend Rosie from the beatings she suffers at the hands of August has him doubting himself.

Surprisingly, as intriguing as the young Jacob’s story is, the nursing home predicament that the older Jacob finds himself in is an equally touching one. The audio version of Water for Elephants (10 CDs and 11 ½ hours long) is read by David LeDoux, as the young Jacob Jankowski and John Randolph Jones, who turns in an absolutely brilliant performance as Jacob, the old man. Frankly, both of the worlds created by Gruen are somewhat horrifying and both will linger in my memory for a long time.

Water for Elephants is, however, a tiny bit blemished by its unlikely ending even though it is the kind of fairy tale ending that I personally would have wished for Mr. Jankowski. Some things, though, are just too good to be true - or to ring true in a novel even as good as this one.

Rated at: 4.5

16 comments:

  1. I was totally turned off by the title of this book and had no interest in reading it but it ended up being one of my favorite books of 2007. Glad you enjoyed it.

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  2. This is one of my absolute favourite books - just delightful, even with the slightly too happily-ever-after ending. I'm glad you loved it too!

    And the first draft of the novel was written as part of NaNoWriMo

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  3. This is one book I've been reluctant to read. Everyone loves it; I've yet to meet someone who hasn't, but I'm not sure I could stand the animal abuse and stuff.

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  4. I didn't like the book as much as most people, but I also thought John Randolph Jones did an excellent job.

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  5. Great review! This was my favorite audio book last year. It was very effectively done with two narrators.

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  6. I liked the book okay. The historical stuff about the circus was particularly interesting. But I didn't like the ending, especially how it was given away in the first chapter!

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  7. Glad you liked the book. I especially liked how seamlessly Gruen wove historical research with her narrative. Just the right balance.

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  8. You could count this towards the Canadian Book Challenge, you know.

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  9. Amy, there was something about the title and cover that turned me off, too. I can't put my finger on exactly what it was, but that's why it took me over two years to read the thing. Boy, was I wrong!

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  10. Kelly, thanks for the reminder of where this novel started out...that's maybe the most amazing thing about it, really.

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  11. Annie, the animal abuse, especially in the elephant's case, was hard to read but it is an integral part of the story and the book would have been much weaker without it.

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  12. 3M, I really liked that old man and much of that is due to the narrator, without a doubt. I was very impressed with his reading of the character.

    What didn't you like about the book itself? Just curious...

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  13. JoAnn, I agree. This was the best audio book I listened to this year - of 13 or 14, in total.

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  14. Jeane, I had to go back and re-read the first chapter. :-)

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  15. Gotta agree, Sean. I felt very comfortable in her circus world of that period and I think I came away with a pretty authentic feel for the period...hope so, anyway.

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  16. Thanks, John, for the tip. I've emailed you about this one and "Inside." Appreciate it...

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