Monday, October 31, 2011

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (REVIEW)

An exciting book about love, the Depression, and the circus, WATER FOR ELEPHANTS takes you to the strange and alluring world of the Benzini Brothers Circus and into the lives of some wonderful characters.

 Though he may not speak of them, the memories still dwell inside Jacob Jankowski's ninety-something-year-old mind. Memories of himself as a young man, tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Memories of a world filled with freaks and clowns, with wonder and pain and anger and passion; a world with its own narrow, irrational rules, its own way of life, and its own way of death. The world of the circus: to Jacob it was both salvation and a living hell.

Jacob was there because his luck had run out - orphaned and penniless, he had no direction until he landed on this locomotive 'ship of fools'. It was the early part of the Great Depression, and everyone in this third-rate circus was lucky to have any job at all. Marlena, the star of the equestrian act, was there because she fell in love with the wrong man, a handsome circus boss with a wide mean streak. And Rosie the elephant was there because she was the great gray hope, the new act that was going to be the salvation of the circus; the only problem was, Rosie didn't have an act - in fact, she couldn't even follow instructions. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
335 Pages
Published April 9th, 2006 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill


In WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, Sara Gruen takes us into the world of the circus during the Great Depression and the incredible lives associated with it.  For Jacob Jankowski, the circus is just about a last chance that fate has given him after some untimely luck.  Joining with the Benzini Brothers to care for their animals, Jacob is launched into a world that’s strange and unusual for him, and provides the backdrop for reminiscing when he’s 90 and in a nursing home many years later.

With vivid imagery, you’re taken into the world of the circus and into the lives of these characters.  The characters themselves are very believable and fleshed out, especially August the animal trainer.  His viciousness and mood swings were gripping and his evolution into the bad guy had me sitting there waiting for more.  And as the husband of Marlena, Jacob’s romantic interest, August had plenty of opportunity to be jealous and controlling.  Even secondary characters were well formed and fleshed out, giving the book even more life and character.  Even Rosie the elephant becomes a character that you fall in love with by the end of the book.

The author tackles a bunch of interesting subjects and has obviously researched them all thoroughly.  From the drinking of Sterno fluid during Prohibition and its effects afterwards to the history of the circus originally as an event for men to get on with their hoochy koochy stuff, Gruen provides a well researched take on everything.  This research shows and if you’re a history nut like me you will not be disappointed.

What I had a slight problem with was the love story.  It was very sweet, but it was also somewhat stereotypical.  Boy comes along and becomes the knight in shining armor to the damsel in distress.  It was still a believable, romantic, and heartwarming love story, and it makes you remember that back in the day, people thought that women were property of men.  Even in the circus with people protecting one another there was no escape from domestic violence.

The story in the past and in the nursing home blended seamlessly and the transitions were impeccable.  Gruen crafted a well researched and well written love story that, though with its small faults, was a very good novel.  Gruen is definitely an author that I want to watch and read more of.

VERDICT: Even though it suffers from a stereotypical romance, WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is a well-crafted, heartwarming novel that keeps you glued to your seat wanting more of the circus and the atmosphere.


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