Only three people were left under the red and white awning of the grease joint: Grady, me, and the fry cook.
As the nights draw in, I find myself reaching more and more for comfortable, easy reads – the kind of book that you can curl up on the sofa with and just relax into (also one that’s totally unrelated to work reading and uni reading!). Water for Elephants definitely falls into this category and though it isn’t particularly complex, it is definitely compulsive reading!
A tale told in a flashback, Water for Elephants follows the story of ninety (or ninety-three) year old Jacob Jankowski whose memories are trigged when a circus comes into town. We travel back in time to follow the newly-orphaned university runaway as he finds himself sucked into the life and ways of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Set during the Great American Depression of the 1930s, Jacob’s story is full of loss, love and learning to live.
The dichotomy of modern day nursing home and 1930s travelling circus show are beautifully woven together and, though the flashback method is tried and tested, it is Gruen’s subject matter and writing style that saves Water for Elephants from fading into the background of being just another popular piece of chick-lit. The dedicated research put into this novel is evident from the first page and the detailed writing is both subtle and vivid. She shows you, through Jacob, the life of a 1930s travelling circus with the animal ‘welfare’, the class system, and the compromises and cheats made for survival. It’s amazing how quickly you become totally immersed in this realist yet fantastical way of life.
Water for Elephants opens up the circus tent and exposes the true nature and hierarchy of circus living. It is only his almost-degree in veterinary medicine that saves Jacob from a fate of redlighting and he is soon embroiled in menagerie work, under the authority of the formidable August and watch of his beautiful wife Marlena. The purchase of an ‘untrainable’ elephant and Jacob’s magic touch secures his status in the pecking order at Benzini’s but it’s not long before a love triangle is started in the circus ring.
The love between Marlena and Jacob, though sensitively portrayed and very believable, was a little lacklustre in places and the passion they proclaimed was never really realised for me which was a shame. Similarly I wasn’t convinced of the necessity to have both Uncle Al and August in the story, two incredibly similar characters and Al didn’t bring much to the party as far as I was concerned.However, other relationships in the book are so beautifully constructed that you can overlook this. As an animal lover herself, Gruen is amazing at bringing to the paper the love between man and his best friend (though for most of the characters, this means man and colleague!)
Richly descriptive and lovingly told, I raced through this circus delight and found comfort in the magic of the show.