5/5 stars. Fiction, Historical, Audiobook.
Over 10,000,000 copies in print worldwide #1 New York Times Bestseller A Los Angeles Times Bestseller A Wall Street Journal Bestseller A Newsday Favorite Book of 2006 A USA Today Bestseller A Major Motion Picture starring Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, and Christoph Waltz Jacob Janowski’s luck had run out–orphaned and penniless, he had no direction until he landed on a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. A veterinary student just shy of a degree, he was put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It was the Great Depression and for Jacob the circus was both his salvation and a living hell. There he met Marlena, the beautiful equestrian star married to August, the charismatic but brutal animal trainer. And he met Rosie, an untrainable elephant who was the great hope for this third-rate traveling show. The bond that grew among this group of misfits was one of love and trust, and ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.
I loved Water for Elephants.
It was cute, and about love, and it compared the life of the same character as a young man full of life, energy, desire, and passion to the old, grouchy version of himself in an old folks home. I was surprised I liked this because I am not someone typically into realistic fiction and I was also surprised at how the author was able to make me like such a despicable character as the old man.
I think they were able to make me like him through the unique structure of telling the story of the younger version of Jacob like flashbacks and memories that the older version is having. This allowed the book to give answers to some reason why and how he might have devolved into this grouchy old man.
It made me think as well. Might I become a grouchy old woman? Jacob was such a sweet guy in his 20’s that I think this book would make most readers consider who they might become in older age and what things might lead them to become a person they may not desire with time. We don’t actually get to hear most of the details as to why he is grouchy, other than a different person in the old folks home talking about giving water to the elephants by taking them to a river or something while in a circus, when that is not how they did it – and Jacob Janowski would know because the younger version of himself actually worked in a circus.
The story introduces this element, the fight between old Jacob and the other man at the old folks home claiming to have worked with a circus, which allows the author to take the story back to the past and tell how Jacob came to be in the circus.
He’s a doctoral student, then his parents die and he had nothing and no way to deal with or pay for things. He was expected to graduate, close to his finals, but he feels he needs to leave and doesn’t know what to do with himself, especially when he finds out that his family has no money.
Thus he wanders, and comes across the circus, who needs a new vet. While Jacob didn’t finish his schooling, the circus says it is enough and hires him.
This is a story with sex and passion and all kinds of interesting people that work for the circus. I love the dynamic between the dwarf who Jacob ends up rooming with in the sleeping cart and how their relationship naturally develops from one of hatred to one of quite dedication where you know they will do nearly anything for each other, but they probably wouldn’t admit it to each other.
There was also this sort of side narrative in the story about the workers who weren’t performers. They often wouldn’t get paid for weeks while the performers would and they would sometimes get ‘red-lighted’, which means that they were thrown off the train while it was moving in the middle of the night. They were dispensable and we got to feel a bit of what this was like through Jacob. While he was much more valuable as a vet than workers that moved hay or cleaned out cages, for example, he was new and this put him in a similar boat to many of the lower workers.
Another vital character in this story is Marlena, who works with the horses and performs with them. She has such a deep love for the horses and doesn’t want them overworked, even when it could jeopardize her act. She is married to August, a big guy who keeps giving Jacob a hard time. As Jacob falls ever further for Marlena, he gets into more dangerous territory with August.
As the circus grows and as others falter, the one Jacob works for acquires goods from the other circuses. One of the things they manage to snatch up is an elephant named Rosie. I love Rosie and I really think she adds to the story. Not only is she where this title comes from, but she develops a huge part in the story and is essential to the foil between August and Jacob, showing their humanity and lack there of.
The characterization was great and the characters felt real. Rosie and Marlena and especially Jacob. The readers of the audiobook were perfect in sounding out the different moods of the young and old versions of Jacob. I did think the voice of Marlena was a bit strange, a little bit more than just recognizing that her voice is being spoken by a man because Jacob, the main character, is a man, but yeah, still a little something off about it. The pacing was good. The structure with the young and older versions of Jacob caught my attention and makes me think about including something like that in one of my own books. The way the author was able to highlight the pleasant aspects of Jacob through the younger version of himself was phenomenal. I loved nearly every moment about this book!
A must read for sure, especially for those interested in stories set in the past and realistic fiction.
Find it here on Amazon.