November 20, 2008

Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants

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Love triangles, revenge, mental illness, morality, Cornell — Sara Gruen’s novel Water for Elephants simply has it all. I’m not quite sure what originally attracted me to this book for I am not, by any means, a fan of the circus. In fact, I’m actually very much averse to the circus, to be frank; too many freaks with haphazard body parts and Bradbury-like machinery twisting one’s mind. However, once I decided to set aside my negative biases and flipped open the first page, I was hooked.
Water for Elephants centers around twenty-three-year-old Jacob Jankowski, a student who drops out of Cornell’s veterinary scahool shortly after discovering that both his parents have died in an automobile accident. Directly upon leaving Cornell, he manages to jump onto a passing train that turns out to house the Benzini Brothers’ Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a second-rate circus company. A homeless orphan, Jacob decides to join the circus as a veterinarian for the live animals.
In the story, Jacob’s experiences with the Benzini Brothers are presented as scenes from the memory of Jacob as a 90-something-year-old man in a nursing home. The story alternates between scenes of Jacob as a current-day old man and flashbacks to his circus life in the 1930s. The old Jacob, frustrated with his decaying physicality, remembers his circus days with a strong sense of nostalgia.
When young Jacob settles in with the circus, he begins to form acquaintances with the most unlikely group of characters. On the train, he’s told to share living quarters with a dwarf named Kinko, an aggressive, sensitive worker who instantly takes a disliking to him. Jacob’s relationship with Kinko shifts from hilarious to compassionate in response to the many outrageous experiences that accompany a moving circus. Jacob’s relationship with his friend Camel — yes, a person — also develops as he tries to save his friend from a mysterious, life-threatening illness.
When Jacob falls in love with Marlena, the wife of the head animal trainer, August, the story becomes almost unbearably gripping. August, described later as a paranoid schizophrenic, naturally oscillates between charming to physically and verbally abusive to both people and animals. Jacob, who seems unintentionally in love with Marlena, knows that he must someday face August’s wrath in order to save his lover from a madman.
Yes, Water for Elephants has drama, which is partly why it is such a fascinating read. But it is also captivating in its style. Sara Gruen makes the fictional characters seem unbelievably real. As you read about the nostalgic old man, the rambunctious dwarf and even the smiling elephant, you find yourself automatically identifying with the novel. And perhaps, most importantly, Water for Elephants realizes what we all subconsciously desire: to walk out of Cornell University in the middle of a final exam and join the circus.
So, if you are looking for an entertaining, heart-wrenching, memorable read, I highly recommend Water for Elephants — you don’t even need to like the circus.