Water for Elephants
by Sara Gruen
This book was suggested for my book club, but ultimately passed over for another book. I decided to read it anyway. 😉 The only thing I knew about Water for Elephants was that it was about a circus and then made into a movie. I purposely didn’t read the cover (sometimes I get really unmotivated when I read a spoiler), and simply dove right in. Water for Elephants is a whirlwind of a story and swept me away. I had a low key day when I began reading and I ended up reading the entire book in one day.
Jacob is the main character and the story is told from his perspective. The chapters oscillate between Jacob as an elderly man in an assisted living facility and Jacob as a young man just getting out into the world. Right before Jacob is to graduate from college as a veterinarian, his parents die in a car accident. This sends him home only to learn that his parents are penniless (it is 1920’s depression era America, and his parents mortgaged the house to send him to school). His bereavement sends him into a spiral-he is unable to finish his exams and wanders into the night toward train tracks, where he hops aboard a circus train. Thus beginning a few months journey working as a veterinarian for the circus. Jacob grows up fast, witnessing unusual things, cruelty to animals, and unfair treatment of the circus workers and performers. He grows attached to the animals, especially Rosie the elephant and Bobo the chimpanzee, and falls in love with the liberty horse performer, Marlena. He grows as a person throughout the book. Starting with running away from his life; to facing it head on, protecting those whom he loves, and fighting for what is right. He is far from perfect, but he grows and he tries.
While I enjoyed reading about a new subject (the circus), what stayed with me was reading from an elderly perspective. I liked how it ran throughout the entire book and how you can see the stark contrast between being in your prime and being old. It was sad to me to see how as Jacob got old, he lost his autonomy . . . it seemed to be a cruel joke for him to lose his say in basic day to day events after so many years of being his own person. While you can understand that getting older requires care, it’s sad to see so much personality taken away (granted, in this particular story, Jacob did not have any other ailment/illness other than old age). It made me pause and think about the reality of getting older, both on the side of what you can do for parents/grandparents, and for when your own time comes.
SPOILER: the ending I found both happy and sad. The end of young Jacob results in marrying the love of his life, saving their beloved animals, and finishing his degree. Happy! The end of old Jacob results in his family forgetting about him and as a result, he runs away to the circus to live out his life (that’s a super, super condensed version). So, rather happy and sad.
Summing it up: This book was very sweet, though it had sad moments. It read like a whirlwind and I think if you’re looking for a quick, interesting, enjoyable read, that you would like Water for Elephants.
All the best, Abbey