Recap: There’s nothing like a good love triangle. Put that triangle in an usual setting, and you’ve got yourself a story. Such is the case with Sara Gruen’s Water For Elephants. Elephants follows the story of a Jacob Jankowski, a man in his 90s who lives in a nursing home. The circus comes to town, and the mere mention of the word “circus” brings Jacob back to his young in the 1930’s — a time when circuses were all the rage.
After Jacob’s parents died, Jacob drops out of vet school at Cornell University and joins the circus on a whim. It’s the time of the Great Depression, and with no money, no parents, and no college degree, he decides to stay with the traveling performers. But he soon learns there’s a difference between the entertainers and the working men. He joins the ranks as a working man, serving as the vet for the exotic animals in the show.
In due time, he not only falls in love with the new, untrained, seemingly dumb elephant, Rosie, but he also falls for the show’s star performer, Marlena. One small problem: Marlena happens to be married to one of the show’s directors, August.
Analysis: In some ways, Elephants is a story that’s been written many times over — a love triangle in which the woman is torn between two men with starkly different backgrounds. But it’s the setting and animal subplot that add flavor to this book.
The 1930’s setting deals with a lot of historical issues, including the Great Depression, prohibition, and the technological hindering in the world of medical treatment. For instance, a number of men in the circus suffer from Jake’s leg, a disease caused by drinking contaminated Jamaican ginger that often made its way into alcohol at the time. When one comes down with Jake’s leg, he becomes paralyzed and dies. Not to mention, August suffers from schizophrenia, a disease that was known back then, but not properly treated.
And the animal plot delves deep into animal treatment. In the book, the exotic animals were often times beat to a pulp — something that simply would not fly these days — especially if they were circus animals.
Gruen’s telling of the story also makes it appealing. It reminded me of The Notebook in that it flipped back and forth between a story from long ago and the present day — in which the storyteller is old and reflecting back on his or her life. Water for Elephants is an exciting, engaging page-turner.
MVP: Kinko/Walter, Jacob’s bunkmate. Initially, Kinko is a grouchy, condescending performer — a dwarf — who wants nothing to do with Jacob. But his character develops, and we learn that he may be a dwarf, but he has a giant heart.
Not to mention, check out the movie, starring Robert Pattinson (Jacob) and Reese Witherspoon (Marlena).