Daily Archives: June 16, 2015

‘Water for Elephants’ by Sara Gruen


2007, 350 p.

To run off with the circus is a common escapist trope, and this book too is sheer escapism. Jacob Jankowski is a veterinary science student at Harvard University in the 1930s.  His world falls apart with the death of his parents in an accident and  what had appeared to him to be financial security  unravels quickly in the wake of their deaths. Stunned by the rapid change in his life he suffers, in effect, a nervous breakdown during his exams, walks out and- yep, joins the circus.

The circus is a little self-contained world with its own castes and hierarchies. It is owned by Uncle Al, a ruthless, avaricious entrepreneur who cannabilizes other circuses that fall on hard times during the Depression, picking the best of their artists and animals to join to his circus.  One of the animals is Rosie, an apparently intransigent elephant and she, like the other animals in the circus, comes under his care.  The equestrian director, August, is cruel to both the animals and to his wife Marlena but, as with many cruel people, can be charming and obsequious as well.  And, as you might expect, Jacob and Marlena fall in love.

The story has two alternating narrative threads.  Ninety-three year old Jacob is now a widower in a nursing home, frustrated by the infantalizing and brusque treatment he is receiving.  He’s a difficult but alert  [im]patient and Gruen has written this part well.  Sometimes when there’s a double narrative like this, I find myself inwardly groaning when it switches to the thread I’m less keen on, but this didn’t happen in this book.  The circus section is obviously well-researched (and only occasionally a little too obviously well-researched) both in terms of the times and circus lore.  Our edition was liberally sprinkled with archive photos which can be seen here.

There’s also a YouTube video advertising another book that has interesting images too.

Water for Elephants is a light read; it was on the best-seller list for ages; it was turned into a film starring Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon,  and I gather from all the plot summaries online, must be set on school reading lists.  The goodies are good; the baddies are bad and the ending is nicely tied up.

My rating: 8/10 for a very light read

Sourced from : CAE Book Group for the Book Group Ladies a.k.a. ‘The Ladies Who Say Oooh’