Thursday, April 14, 2011

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill. - Buddha

Although I doubt that Buddha was referring to book blurbs when he said this, it fits.  When Water for Elephants hit the bestsellers lists in 2007, it was promoted with the following synopsis:
Nonagenarian Jacob Jankowski reflects back on his wild and wondrous days with a circus. It's the Depression Era and Jacob, finding himself parentless and penniless, joins the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. There he meets the freaks, grifters, and misfits that populate this world. He introduces us to Marlena, beautiful star of the equestrian act; to August, her charismatic but twisted husband (and the circus's animal trainer); and to Rosie, the seemingly untrainable elephant Jacob cares for. Beautifully written, with a luminous sense of time and place, Water for Elephants tells of love in a world in which love's a luxury few can afford.
I got as far as "circus", "depression", "parentless and penniless" and I was turned off.  If I bothered to read any further, I would also have shied away from a story about "freaks, grifters and misfits".  And if by some remote chance the book wasn't already back on the shelf, "luminous sense of time and place" would have broken the camel's back.  Does anyone, including the guy who wrote it, really know what that means?  I usually interpret such descriptions as "I can't think of anything positive to say about this story, but I'll assume the average reader is too stupid to understand my big words."  Needless to say, I didn't read it.

However, when we moved and I checked out my new library, they were advertising an upcoming book discussion on Water for Elephants.  I picked up a copy simply as a way of getting involved and meeting people, but the paperback copy I checked out had an updated blurb...

As a young man, Jacob Jankowski was tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. It was the early part of the great Depression, and for Jacob, now ninety, the circus world he remembers was both his salvation and a living hell. A veterinary student just shy of a degree, he was put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It was there that he met Marlena, the beautiful equestrian star married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. And he met Rosie, an untrainable elephant who was the great gray hope for this third-rate traveling show. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and, ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.
... hmmmm, this didn't sound as bad as I remembered.  Even the new cover was more appealing.  

I was hooked from page one.  I even told Dave, after about the first 20 pages, "I can't believe I like this book."   I got the feel of a depression-era circus train - fear, desperation, secrecy, squalor - without having to wallow in it.  It's the backdrop to the real story - the relationships Jacob builds with various members of the circus, and even with the animals. 

Jacobs story is told in two time periods.  Present day, he is ninety-something and living in a nursing home.  These scenes were my favorites.  His insights into aging are both comical and sad, and his memories of those early days are almost like seeing things from a second person's perspective because time has given him a broader view than the young Jacob who is telling the main story.  The condescending attitudes of the nursing home staff are much too authentic, but give an accurate view of the disrespect with which we treat our elderly.

The ending contains a twist, and if you think you have it all figured out, there's a second surprise that I found extremely satisfying.  I love to finish a book with the feeling that everything has "come 'round right" (To quote an old hymn.  Bonus points if you can name the hymn.)


  1. I liked this book so much and am looking forward to the movie. Glad it worked for you as well.

  2. Loved this book!! I also enjoyed her book "Riding Lesson", but not as much as this one. I think "Water for Elephants" is the only book my book club has ever unanimously loved.

    And, thanks again for lunch!