Water for Elephants is June’s Book Club pick, and the first one I’ve really enjoyed since our first novel, Never Let Me Go.
The main character Jacob Jankowski is a young man of Polish descent who is following his father’s footsteps in to the field of veterinary medicine. When his parents are suddenly killed in a car accident just before his final exams and the family home is repossessed, Jacob hops a train in the middle of the night and finds himself serving as the veterinarian to the Benzini Brothers traveling circus.
There he meets a collection of circus folk, including Jacob’s (very strange) bedfellow Walter the dwarf, and his dog Queenie, Camel, an old alcoholic suffering from Jamaican ginger paralysis, along with the lovely Marlena, who performs with horses, and her paranoid schizophrenic husband August, who has charge of the circus animals.
The story is framed by the ninety (or possibly ninety-three, he’s not quite sure) year old Jacob looking back on his life and recalling his time with the Benzini Brothers. His memory is set off because the circus is in town, and another old man in the home where he lives claims to have worked for the circus carrying water for the elephants. Old Jacob declares this nonsense, as elephants drink so much, no one would be able to carry their water! And thus, his recollections begin. While the convention of ‘the old person near death looking back at life’ doesn’t always work for me, it did here. The depiction of Old Jacob, and particularly his struggle with the fogginess of mind and frailness of body that comes with old age, felt very real.
That said, the ending(s) really didn’t work for me. Jacob’s memory of past events concludes as he waits for one of his (many) descendants to arrive and take him to the circus. The story of Jacob’s time with the circus ends with a literally fantastic stampede of animals and an exit with a variety of exotic animals in tow. In the present day, when it turns out that schedules were confused and no one is coming, Old Jacob takes it upon himself to shuffle down the block to the circus with his walker (and in his slippers). There, a conversation with the ringmaster leads to an offer for Jacob to run away with the circus. This was just a bit to pat for me – although I suppose there’s an alternate view of this ending, which I would prefer, that Jacob has died and ‘running away with the circus’ is his entry into the afterlife.
Bottom line, it’s a good book, a quick read, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Gruen’s work.