I do realize that I am a bit late on the band wagon when it comes to Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, but its better late than never. I have to admit that there has been a desire to read this book for a while, so after long-awaited months and much debate in my head I finally convinced myself to buy it. If you haven’t already heard about this book either from the massive amount of media press it has received, the positive reviews all over the literary world or from the recent featured film adaptation of the novel, then I should ask if you have been living on a deserted island or under a rock for the past few years. If you haven’t read this book or heard of it, I would be more than delighted to inform you for my thoughts and a brief summary of this exquisite work.
The novel takes place during the 1930’s which is sandwiched between two major events in American History; the Great Depression and the era of Prohibition. It was a time that the country was suffering from the corruption, darkened years of the Prohibition and financial struggles brought on through the Great Depression. Shops were closing down, people were becoming homeless and the need for drink was becoming more desperate. During this time we find our main character, Jacob Jankowski, about to become a recent graduate of college with a veterinary degree, taking on his father’s practice and ideally has the world at his feet. But tragedy strikes our main character’s life and he flees from what he knows, looking for answers and desperately trying to forget the life and the future he once wanted. Due to his luck and fate, Jacob finds himself becoming the vet to the circus of Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth; which in turns becomes his save haven and the rescuer of his life. Jacob adapts himself to circus life and becomes friends with its strange, surreal members of the rag-tag bunch brought together in desperate times. But his most important connection is with beautiful equestrian Marlena, who is unfortunately married to the deranged, charming animal trainer August. Jacob must find his place in the harebrained, corrupt world that he lives in and must deal with his ever-growing attraction to Marlena.
I began this novel with a clean mind, I forgot all the things I have read about it and focused on the book and all it had to offer. I must conclude that this book is a beautiful, a handcrafted piece of art to be devoured by every reader out there. As my eyes scanned across it’s pages, eating up all the detailed descriptions, characteristic pro’s and engaging but distance conversations, I began to believe that I was a member of the circus too. I saw the characters, and their surroundings coming to life before me, I could picture the raising the “the Big Top” tent with its white and red strips reaching into the heaven; which is ultimately something every reader would want from a book. I saw the hardships of the time weaving in and out of the characters and the show itself. Some characters battled with financial difficulties of the time, some the drink that they could not get rid of, and the struggle of trying to find one’s identity in a world where nothing was curtain. The life of someone in the circus was never concrete; one day you could be living the dream, exploring America and all its wonder or the next you could find yourself at the side of the train watching it pass you by because it was unable to pay the wages you so relied upon. This novel puts a reality on something that has fascinated the minds of children and adults alike who have always dreamed of running away to the circus.
The character that gets to live out this dream of leaving life behind and going to the circus is the main character Jacob. I cannot but feel pulled towards him; his feelings, actions, thoughts, transformation and seeing what was to become of him during this time of uncertainty. He is the picturesque of what every young person is, either in the 1930’s or now; they are people who are ultimately trying to find themselves and their place in the world. He is someone who is unaffected but the faithless, shallow sphere that he dwells in at the circus and manages to keep to the moral high ground when things get rough. Even though he reacts to situations as any young man of morals, temper would act; he lacks the common sense needed to keep himself out of trouble. He is loyal, devote and caring and I would have loved to have a friend like him in my life. There are some moments in the book that gave me great frustration, due to his short-sighted view of the world, that would allow me to rethink who he was as a character but it only led to the ideal fact that I so desperately wanted him to win.
One thing you need to do before picking up this book, if you have never read it, is to forget everything you have ever read about it. Forget the reviews, the articles; the things you have read on Amazon, and yes you can even forget this blog! Forget the movie, if you have seen it. The best approach to coming into this novel is not to have any previous judgments about it. Coming into it with a fresh eyes, and a fresh mind will allow you, as the reader, to enjoy the novel more and get lost in the crazy world that Jacob finds himself in. The dream that you once had of living with the circus comes a live with this work; and it is not as glamorous, exciting or adventurous as we all hoped it was going to be.