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