Review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants is a novel of passion, historical integrity, and intrigue. It’s received glowing reviews from sources such as

PeopleChicago Tribune, and Entertainment Weekly, and it was recently made into a movie that was a box office hit. There’s an element for every reader to enjoy, whether it’s a murder mystery, some twisted comedy, or a heated romance. In short, this book will grab you and never let go.

The story opens in an assisted living home. An old man named Jacob Jankowski is our main character, and the narrative is unique in that he tells us his story in flashbacks, from modern times back to the Depression-ridden year of 1931. The very first line, which happens to be my favorite line, reads, “I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other.” It gives you a taste of the story’s tone. I admired how Gruen managed to make the old man cantankerous and comical while his past voice reveals itself to be uncertain and speculative, as most young people are. The pacing of each chapter is graceful and consistent, making both parts of the tale enjoyable and easy to slip into.

When Jacob was a young man, his parents died suddenly, causing him to flee from his empty home in shock and grief. He gave no thought to the upcoming exam that would earn him his veterinary degree. His only instinct was to escape reality. He didn’t know where he was or where he was going; he just wandered. After a long night, he happened to come across a train. Without thinking, he leapt aboard, and thus began Jacob Jankowski’s gritty, whirlwind adventure into the world of the American circus.

Because of his skills with animals, Jacob was given a position on the Benzini Brothers caravan. But the job wasn’t as simple as it might have seemed. Jacob couldn’t help but notice the director’s beautiful wife. It was also hard to miss the way the man abused some of the animals. Workers weren’t being paid, and some were randomly disappearing…

It would be impossible to summarize the intricate, haunting plot that Gruen has weaved. From rich equestrian detail to the delicious realities of a city speak-easy, from gaining rough friends and making deadly enemies, Gruen explores nearly every possibility and effortlessly guides us through this time. The characters are well-rounded and diverse. There’s a dwarf, a grotesquely overweight woman whose poster covers the side of the train, an awkward young man, a beautiful woman with a love for horses, and an elephant that is too intelligent for its own good.

To put it simply,

Water for Elephants

is one of a kind. This book was so gripping that I started and finished it in one day. The author has clearly done her research for this era and setting. Even the dialogue is true to the time. While the syntax is not elaborate, Jacob’s voice is authentic, both as a young man in the throes of love and as a despairing old man withering away in an assisted living home. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I opened this book, but I let out a satisfied sigh when I turned the final page.