Jacob Jankowski is in his 90s and is living out the last of his days in a nursing home. His body is fragile but his mind is still pretty sharp, and when a circus comes to town, he is flooded with memories of his own experience working on the Benzini Brothers Circus in the 1930s. After his parents were killed in a car accident, Jacob left his Ivy-league veterinary education behind and found himself on board a train with the circus. Once there, he adapted to circus life and its own rules. He fell in love with Marlena, the star of the equestrian act, who just happened to be married to August, the circus boss with a terrible temper. As the two of them try to come to grips with their feelings, they also have to work together in order to survive.
Sara Gruen’s novel about circus life in the 1930s is richly imagined. The attention to detail regarding vernacular, the rigid caste system, and the daily minutiae of circus life indicate a devotion to the story. There is an author’s note about Gruen having studied elephant body language, and this makes sense: the scenes with Rosie, the lemonade-stealing elephant are the most compelling and heartbreaking.
There’s quite a bit going on beneath the surface, too. While the rest of the United States is suffering the worst depression in history, August is having a new headdress made for Rosie and is giving Marlena a lavish diamond necklace. While people starve across the country, the circus workers make sure the menagerie animals are well-fed. After a while, the reader begins to realize that August’s paranoid schizophrenia might be a result from his faked emotions after all the years on the circuit, trying to make ends meet.
When Gruen is at her best, the world is richly imagined and the story is weird and entertaining. However, Gruen’s prose often feels rushed, especially when dealing with action sequences: although there’s a stampede and two murders, these scenes pass too quickly and yet feel a little overwrought. Additionally, the heated love affair between Jacob and Marlena never quite gels, and their passion never quite smolders.
That being said, this is an entertaining novel. It’s steeped in history about a particular time in the history of the United States, and it offers a unique perspective on circus life. Recommended for fans of historical fiction.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Algonquin: 2006. Purchased copy.