While few and far between, there are days when I wake up and just know something is going to happen that will change my life forever – good or bad. I don’t think that is how Jacob Jankowski, the protagonist in Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, felt. But the sudden death of his parents on one fateful day does in fact change his life forever. Set at two stages of life: “ninety. Or ninety three. One or the other”, and his early twenties during the Depression, Jacob tells the story of abandoning his Ivy League studies at Cornell as a veterinary student following the death of his parents.
In his blinding grief, Jacob stumbles along a set of train tracks in search of something and inadvertently jumps a set of train cars he soon discovers is part of a travelling circus – "The Benzini Brothers Most Spectatular Show on Earth". Nearly cast off the train by one of the surly crew, by sheer luck, or stupidity I have yet to discern, Jacob quickly immerses himself into the circus as the de facto veterinarian to an unruly set of lions (one toothless), tigers, monkeys, horses, and an elephant—mostly all of which have picked up by a sadistic circus boss bent on scavenging animals and performers from the misfortunes of other b-rated and now non-existent circus acts. Of course, the ring leader of the circus has a beautiful wife and liberty horse leader, Marlena, who shares Jacob’s love for animals. Can you see where this is going?
I am a huge fan of carnival and circus freaks and geeks type stories—Geek Love by Katherine Dunn being my all time favorite—thus Ms. Gruen’s keen insight into the exclusive society of circus performers intrigues me. Not to mention that I absolutely love it when a female author takes on that of a male from the first person perspective. She does this quite well.
Survival of the fittest is a prominent theme in this book, in addition to romance, aging, memory and the tragedy of life. While I devour it each direction on my subway commute from Brooklyn to Midtown and back again, Ms. Gruen’s ability to grab me with perfected circus lingo and drama makes me wish my stop was a few more out.