When Jacob Jankowski, recently orphaned and suddenly adrift, jumps onto a passing train, he enters a world of freaks, swindlers and misfits in a second-rate struggling to survive.
A veterinary student who almost earned his degree, Jacob is put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It is there that Jacob meets Marlena, the beautiful equestrienne who is married to August, a charismatic but violently unpredictable animal trainer. Jacob also meets Rosie, and elephant who seems unmanageable until he discovers an unusual way to reach her.
Water for Elephants is a story that has it all - warmth, humour, poignancy and passion. It has an energy and spirit like the feeling under a big top when the show is about to begin. It is a novel that will win your heart.
Recently, in one of the groups I am in, we have been having a discussion about the nature of reviewing, and a comment was made that it is much easier to write reviews for books that you either loved or hated, as opposed to those kind of books where your reaction was just somewhat meh! In theory, I agree...but that doesn't explain why I had so much trouble getting motivated to write the review for this book that I finished on 18 December and absolutely loved!
Whilst this book is the story as explained in the blurb above, it is also something much more than that as well. It is a book that explores the dark side of circus life in the late 1920's, when money was tight all round, and a solution to having too many circus staff could well be to have some of them disappear off of a moving train in the middle of the night. From egotistical circus masters who wants to be Ringling, to delicate horse riders, maniacal animal trainers to dwarfs and fat ladies, the cast of characters is interesting and varied. Whilst the glamour of the circus is portrayed, it isn't over the top, and the reality of a tough life spent travelling from one town to the next, not knowing if you were going to be run out of town or not, is not backed away from at all.
Another aspect of the story is about the experience of getting old. When we meet Jacob he is an old man who lives in a nursing home, and the book relates his experiences of losing his independence and his dignity. The arrival of a modern circus near the nursing home triggers memories for Jacob of his arrival into the circus, and the subsequent events. At first he seems disinterested in the circus, but in the end he decides that he does want to go, and then scenes as he waits anxiously for his family to arrive so he doesn't miss the opening act are quite heart wrenching.
From another point of view this is also a love story - between humans, and between humans and animals. The interactions between the animals and humans provide many of the funniest and many of the more gruesome incidents in the book, from the elephant who appears not to understand any commands to the little performing dog that is strongly connected to his owner trainer.
This book is richly layered and complex story that is held together by strong characters and fascinating history. In the author's note, she tells that some of the stories that may have seemed a little outlandish were in fact based on events that really happened. Just thinking about it is almost enough to prompt me to go and see whether there are any circuses in town. An extremely enjoyable read.
There really was only one small thing that prevented me from giving this book the perfect 5/5 score, and that was the ending, which seemed completely improbable. Then again, I'm not really sure how else the book could really have ended without having Jacob die or the book just fizzle to the end!