I found Sara Gruen's WATER FOR ELEPHANTS thoroughly enchanting in a very engrossing tale of the 1930s traveling circus Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Part wonder, part adventure, part tragedy and turmoil, and part romance, my first Gruen novel conveys a novel artistry in the settings, characters, prose and storytelling that resonated. Similar to Cornwell's rendition on Arthur, I find here a popular style of writing many authors choosing as of late: a first-person narration that shifts from a flashback when he's 23 years old and to the present tense when he's 90... or 93. The flashback comprises the bulk of the book's content over the span of 3 to 4 months when 23 year-old Jacob lands in a shady traveling circus amidst the historical backdrop of the Great Depression and the prohibition of alcohol. Normally, first-person flashbacks tend to affect a doleful disposition. Not so here. Remarkably, I found the present happenings of our senile 90-or-93 year-old Jacob in a nursing home refreshingly funny and instructively captivating as we laugh and empathize with Jacob. I'll never look at my grandmother the same way again. In fact the book derives its title from a grumpy Jacob grousing over another old man claiming to bring water for elephants in his younger days.
Bathing is...embarrassing, because I have to strip...Now, there are some things that never die, so even though I'm in my nineties my sap sometimes rises...[The nurses] always pretend not to notice...It means they consider me nothing more than a harmless old man sporting a harmless old penis that still gets uppity once in a while. Although if one of them took it seriously and tried to do something about it, the shock would probably kill me.
Personal wants and simple plot devices prevented a perfect 5-star rating on my part. I'm impressed by Gruen's research into the time period and traveling circuses, and admittedly, Gruen's hypnotizing writing style, symmetric storytelling and gritty characterizations far surpasses many of my 4 and 5-star books. I read a 553-page large print edition of WATER FOR ELEPHANTS containing black-and-white photos of 1930s circuses and for the first 100 to 200 pages, I was enthralled. The wonder and the adventure of it had me smiling and on the edge of my seat. The book then settles down with the August Rosenbluth character who factors in more and more prominently. Much of the plotting deals with August, his wife Marlena and our protagonist Jacob as the third wheel at a private dinner or outing. August's violent schizophrenia took center stage and the August character and his prominence choked much of my enthusiasm. Instead of August, I was hoping for more wonders of the circus, more Camel, Walter, and more plots with the animals of the menagerie. When circumstances finally unite our star-crossed lovers, we then have the Circus manager Uncle Al episodically fomenting trouble. The caste-like, hierarchal circus society consisting of performers, workers and rubes was very interesting, but Jacob's helplessness within that hierarchy, although gritty and realistic, proved altogether exasperating. I was hoping to see Jacob doing more, whether helping the elephant or protecting Marlena (both from August). I also found the ending a bit disappointing and anticlimactic, I wanted to see at least one more chapter of closure in the flashback rather than relaying the aftermath in the present tense.
At its heart, the book expresses Jacob's story of love -- an impossible love for his wife, a love for animals and the elephant, and of course, a love for the wondrous circus. Unlike so many potboiler romance novels, here's a love between a man and woman that isn't so trite: we have a sexually-inexperienced, red-haired 23 year-old college boy and the compassionate star of the circus who dares to love him, and in return, warrants his affection, caring, loyalty and love. Even though their first love scene isn't ideal by romance standards, it nevertheless reverberates with passion and we witness Jacob's joy for giving as she guides him. Granted, it's written entirely from Jacob's perspective and even though the first lovemaking wasn't scientifically precise (again, by romance standards), the book captures how each gives their heart for the other. Everything isn't initiated by Jacob and that in itself was noteworthy. For myself, love is about mutual giving, and I always hope to see some semblance of that. WATER FOR ELEPHANTS doesn't disappoint.
...she lies nestled against me, her hair tickling my face. I stroke her lightly, memorizing her body. I want her to melt into me, like butter on toast. I want to absorb her and walk around for the rest of my days with her encased in my skin...I lie motionless, savoring the feeling of her body against mine. I'm afraid to breathe in case I break the spell.
I'm astonished to read a very believable and resonating account of a male character written by a woman. In spite of Jacob's frustrating helplessness at times, I loved how realistic, how passionate and how intense he was about the animals, friends and love he cares for. I appreciated Jacob's passion and intensity minus the inane, repetitious introspection so common to the romance genre. No, guys don't think and muse about things for endless pages, and Gruen thankfully discarded that element of the romance. Things are happening anyway, so Gruen need not fill the pages with cheap introspection.
The story actually begins with the ending. It was actually deftly done, and Gruen fills in the details when we encounter the prologue at the very end of the book again. Ironically, this adds a measure of suspense to the novel.
We then transition to a present-day nursing home where ninety (or ninety-three) year-old Jacob Jankowski reminisces about his past with a circus. Although this may sound very melancholy, Gruen enriches the dour present with anecdotal humor. The story shifts between a presently old Jacob and a 23 year-old Jacob's adventures with a traveling circus in the 1930s (I don't think it's clear exactly what year). During the last year of Jacob's veterinary degree at Cornell right before exams, Jacob's parents perish in a car accident. It's the Great Depression, times are bad and the bank consequently confiscates his parents' home and his father's veterinary practice. Jacob grieves all the more when he discovers his father mortgaged everything to help pay for his Cornell tuition. Without a dime to his name, without a home and having walked out of final exams, Jacob hops on a train in the middle of the night. He discovers later the train belongs to a traveling circus: Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.
We eventually find out that many traveling circuses are disintegrating during this time and the Benzini Brothers don't actually run this circus. Uncle Al ruthlessly manages this circus and he's described as a "buzzard, a vulture, an eater of carrion." Essentially, Al keeps his ears open to failing circuses and ensures he's around to absorb some of their prizes. More than anything else, Uncle Al covets freaks. Uncle Al's equestrian director and superintendent of animals is schizophrenic August Rosenbluth, and eventually Jacob works for August. August is the common flavor of tall, dark and handsome: charming, affable and inviting -- when he wants to be. Twelve years his junior, August's wife is the pretty and acrobatic Marlena, the star of the equestrian act and really the star of the circus.
The circus travels from city to city and Uncle Al makes an impromptu detour for a failed circus to absorb some of its spoils. Uncle Al especially desires a man with a twin protruding from his chest. Ringling picks up the freak but Uncle Al lands Rosie the Elephant instead. They even acquire the train car to house Rosie. On one charming night that turns awry later, the audience erupts in appreciation of Marlena and Rosie's incomparable act.
As I mentioned before, I thought the book limps to its conclusion. I would have appreciated another chapter in the flashback depicting our protagonists in a new act with another circus. Still, I found the reading experience a captivating novelty to say the least.