Water for Elephants was the fifth choice for Our Book Club, and amongst these five novels, the one we all enjoyed the most…

Jacob Jankowski is a ninety-three year-old man, who lives the remaining of his days in a home for the elderly. Having kept his memory and reasoning abilities, he despairs at the way he and his peers are treated, served tasteless and shapeless food, never asked for their opinions, and taken for granted. But Jacob is still sharp, and, as a circus is installing its tents in front of his building, he remembers his experience with a traveling circus, back in the Depression years.

As a young man about to take his final exams to be a veterinarian, Jacob loses both parents in an accident, and realizes almost at the same time that he has no money, and no way to take on the veterinarian office that he was supposed to work in with his father. After a breakdown, Jacob leaves the exam room the day of his finals, and, lost in the countryside, he suddenly decides on a whim to climb a passing train, not knowing this is a traveling circus.

First employed as a cleaning man, the lowest rank in the circus hierarchy, Jacob is soon recognized for what he is and hired as the official vet. He is soon taken in a dangerous love triangle, as he falls in love with Marlena, a beautiful woman who performs with horses, and who also happens to be the wife of August, the man in charge of the menagerie. Jacob soon realizes that August is unstable, sometimes charming and funny, but other times aggressive and unpredictable. He tries to hide his feelings for Marlena, until the day August takes his anger on her, and Jacob has to take a stand…

We all liked reading about life in a traveling circus, a world so alien to our experience. A life spent on a train, the hierarchy that put the performer well above the working man, the haste of putting everything on display, performing, packing up, and leaving to start again somewhere else, the excitement and adventure of being “on the road”, the promiscuity between men and animals, living, eating and sleeping on moving wagons, everything was surprising and interesting to read about. The fact that this takes place in the thirties also allowed the author to show things that changed since then and increased the sense of visiting a world unknown to us: the mistreatment of animals, the showing-off of freaks, the habit of stealing from other dying circuses, or again the “cooch tent” where men went to watch woman strip under the frowning eyes of their wives, would all be unconceivable today.

Although, as I said, we all enjoyed this book a lot, I was the less enthusiastic about it, maybe because the atmosphere of a traveling circus in the thirties was less of a novelty for me, after watching the brilliant HBO show Carnivale, which aired for two seasons some years ago. Of course I had expectation to find the same excitement that the series brought for me, and in a way it did, the atmosphere was there again, but Water for Elephants didn’t draw me in and keep my interest as powerfully as Carnivale did. Two of us also found that if Jacob is a wonderful character, Marlena and August both remained very superficially drawn and we felt no chemistry in the love story between Jacob and Marlena. In fact, we felt much more chemistry between Rosie, the elephant, and Jacob, presumably because this was the relationship Sara Gruen, the author, wanted to write about. We all loved the character of Rosie and, although we are not really attracted to novels giving a big parts to animals, we enjoyed her scenes (except the scenes where August beats her, of course). Strangely enough, even though the novel is about the circus in the thirties, we were looking forward to the scenes set in the present, because we really liked the character of ninety-three-year-old Jacob, and were really rooting for him in his attempts to hold on to his dignity and sanity.

Water for Elephants is an original, entertaining and engrossing novel…

Rating: 4/5