17. Water for Elephants – Sara Gruen – 561 pages - 3.5 stars
I’m always a bit late to those books that everyone and Oprah has read. I’m wary of reading books because “everyone else has.” But I was pleasantly surprised by this book. This story of a young vet who joins a circus in the Depression Era is entertaining and a good read.
There are two story lines in the novel—the protagonist Jacob as an old man, and Jacob as a young, 23-year-old vet student. As an old man in a nursing home, he is bored to tears and reminisces about his youth.
At twenty-three Jacob is almost done with his veterinary degree when tragedy unhinges him and he’s unable to sit his final exams. Disillusioned, he sets off on his own and hops a train that ends up being a circus train. Due to his training, he is able to latch onto the circus and become the circus vet. The circus is a seedy, with aspirations of becoming a grand circus like the Ringling Brothers. Jacob is drawn into the strange underworld and the people in it—some are wonderful people, but some are dark.
In time, he befriends a clown named Kinko, an acrobat named Marlena that he falls in love with, and inherits an elephant named Rosie. He must protect these friends from the ringmaster and the head animal trainer and Marlena’s husband, August.
The storyline itself was engaging, but the prose was sometimes a little flowery for my taste. The setting sells it—Gruen obviously did her homework, and it shows in the little details. It’s a good novel. Not great, but good.