I fell in love with the cover as soon as I saw it from a display a few months ago. It looks vintage, sensual and mysteriously fun. I was even more excited when I learn that this novel explores about circus. My childhood was filled with imagination that circus is something fun, something cheerful, and everything in it is grand. Reading novels or books about circus is a luxury, and the last time I did that was when reading The Circus Series (Mr Galliano’s Circus) by Enid Blyton. Splendid series, by the way.
Water for Elephants offers none of the grande side of circus, rather, the dark side of it. Many details on this novel were drawn from real life that made this novel a historical novel. The main setting was inside a running train that would take the circus from town to town. Jacob Jankowski ran away from his life after his parents’ death which leaves him orphaned and broke. In the dark, he jumped into a train only to learn that it’s a circus train belongs to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Uncle Al, the owner, hired Jacob as the circus vet and to care for the animals because Jacob has studied vet in university.
From the novel readers learn that life inside the show was not as glamorous as it’s seen on stage, especially during the Depression Era around 1930s. The antagonists are so strong in character that I feel like I hate them personally. Uncle Al is definitely one ambitious owner who thinks only about fame and money. He cares nothing about animals and his workers. From time to time he red-lighted workers to avoid paying them or to get rid of the troublemakers. Red-lighting means throwing people in the middle of the night from a running train. Another antagonist is August Rosenbluth, Uncle Al’s most favored right hand. August is the show’s equestrian director and superintendent of the animals. He’s equally charming and brutal. Once he’s fuming over something, he will throw rages to everything or everyone in front of him, especially the animals. And to make life merrier in the circus train, Jacob is in love with the wrong person, August’s wife, and causing more chaos in the already chaotic show.
Told as memories from the 90-years old Jacob who’s now living in the nursing home, the novel beautifully engages love story with tragedies, glam shows with eccentric characters, and it is hard to put down once readers passed the prologue. Carrying water for elephants was one of the dream job for many, but from real person experience, Jacob told that no such job in a circus show.
Sara Gruen is a Canadian-American author of other bestselling novels: Riding Lessons (2004), it’s sequel Flying Changes (2005), and Ape House (2009). Water for Elephants is her 3rd novel.