Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

43641Fiction — print. Algonquin Books, 2007. 335 pgs. Purchased.

After the tragic death of his parents, Jacob Jankowski leaves veterinary college during his final exams and jumps a freight train in the dark not realizing the train is actually owned by a circus, the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.

Jacob is hired on once his experience as a veterinary students becomes known and travels across the country caring for the animals used in the glittery, sensual show. But behind the big top exists a world where both animals and men are dispensable, where circuses follow the boom and busts of a country plunged into a depression.

Right after this book made a splash in the literary world, I added it to my to-be read list before deciding somewhere along the way that it would be too abstract and, well, literary for me to read and enjoy. I was convinced that I would need to be in the “right” mood — one where I can appreciate slow, meandering narratives provided by old men — and always allowed my fingers to skip over it on the bookshelf when I went hunting for a new book to read. Oh, how wrong I was.

Yes, this book is the recollections of an old man on the particular time in his youth, but the magic of those moments he remembers easily pulled me into the story. The line between the past and the present isn’t always clear; both sections us the present-tense. Yet it felt like I was wandering back into Jacob’s memory with him, and because I have never been to a circus before, I greatly appreciated the intimate feeling between myself and the story that Gruen created through this technique.

I also really enjoyed the old photographs Gruen included at the start of each chapter and the interview with the author at the end where she details her research into traveling circuses of this time period. It may seem like an unimportant aspect of the novel, but I found the way circuses picked over the animals and performers to be one of the more interesting parts. The idea of “running away with the circus” has such a romanticized notion behind it, particularly because it suggests that even the oddest people in our society can find acceptance there,  yet Gruen dismantles this notion throughout the novel, particularly through this scene, forcing Jacob to realize running away from one’s problems is impossible.

I’m glad I forced my hand to stop skimming over this title on my bookshelf because it turned out to be an enjoyable, imaginative read. And, of course, now I feel a desire to read nonfiction books about traveling circuses.

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