This was one of the most memorable novels I have read in the last few years.The narrator, Jacob, is “ninety or ninety-three” and lives in a nursing home. The arrival of the circus next store leads him to reflect on his experiences working on a circus during the depression. I have never been to the circus but Gruen makes the days when the circus was still a big event come to life.
Several things make this story stand out. First, instead of the usual format where the elderly person only appears to introduce a flashback, in Water For Elephants, the story alternates between Jacob’s present life in the nursing home and his life as a young man in the circus. In the audio version, there are separate narrators for the younger Jacob and the older Jacob. This makes it easy to tell where you are and adds to the realism.
At first I found myself wanting to get out of the nursing home and back to the circus, but by the end I cared as much about what was going to happen to the elderly Jacob and I did about learning the secret of his past. Even so, I thought the writing about the circus was especially powerful. Gruen’s ability to evoke the world of the depression-era circus reminded me of Ann Rice’s ability to make me feel that I am in New Orleans. She puts you in the menagerie with the animals, and Rosie, the elephant, is a character you won’t soon forget.
Finally, there is a surprise at the end, which leaves you feeling happier than you expected.
This is a relatively short book that I think anyone who loves animals will enjoy.