Water For Elephants was the first of Gruen’s books that I discovered. I had’t picked up the book since my initial read years ago and finding myself sick and craving the comfort of a somewhat familiar read I was drawn to revisiting this novel. Water For Elephants follow the story of Jacob. Jacob is following his father’s footsteps and is only his final exams away from becoming a veterinarian when tragedy strikes and his parents die in a motor accident. Shaken, penniless and now homeless in the Depression, Jacob heads towards the city looking for work. Hitching a ride on a freight train Jacob suddenly finds himself suddenly employed by the Benzini Brothers Circus as the resident vet. The story follows his venture into the bright, glittery and intoxicating world of a 1920’s circus, learning that there is a much darker side to all the glitz and glamor.
Gruen is the master of creating a captivating story that hits you right in the feels. Part of this can be attributed to the vibrant memorable characters she creates. To be honest, what better licence to create a range of unforgettable characters than in a 1920’s circus. Cut-throat, colourful and with the only law being circus law, Gruen draws many great characters. Jacob and his story is a mystery that is slowly put together as the story progresses. Marlena is a pretty bird in a gold cage. Rosie is a highlight. Camel and Kinko add even more colour and August is the villain dreams are made of. No further explanation is necessary, you need to discover these characters yourself.
As always Gruen also sets herself apart with comprehensive research. All references made, tidbits of stories about circus life are realistic and happened back in the circus days of the twenties. The fact that it is believable with the incredible situations plausible makes the story all the more entertaining. The circus world today is nothing like the world described in the novel, and so it shouldn’t be. The captivity of wild animals in less than desirable conditions, forced to entertain the masses, dodgy deals and illegal going-ons are (mostly) long past but provide a captivating setting that truly takes you back in time to something you cannot experience yourself.
One factor I had forgotten was that the story is narrated by an older Jacob, forgotten in a nursing home. Cranky, forgetful and having to deal with mushy, flavourless food we encounter Jacob’s story piece by piece in a series of flashbacks. The ending I had also forgotten and fell in love with all over again. This reread reminded what got me hooked to Gruen’s writing in the first place.
I would highly recommend Water For Elephants to anyone. This story will steal your heart before you know and leave you wanting more, or at least to run away to the circus. Definitely give this one a go if you haven’t already. I give this book four circus elephants.