Jacob Jankowski is pushing 90 and wallowing in a nursing home, abandoned by his family and surrounded by aged octogenarians who irk him with their senility. He has few pleasures in life --- an astute and friendly nurse named Rosemary and his vibrant memories. As Jacob lies in his bed, drifting in and out of sleep, lucidness and dreams, the compelling story of his experiences as a young man unfolds in Sara Gruen's mesmerizing novel, "Water for Elephants."
The year is 1932. Jacob is 23 and just shy of getting his degree in veterinary medicine from Cornell when he learns that his parents have been killed in a horrific accident. Emotionally and monetarily stranded, unmoored and with nothing to lose, Jacob jumps a train and finds himself traveling with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Starting at the bottom rung of the strict caste system within the ranks of the Circus employees, Jacob's veterinary knowledge quickly garners him a place near the top of the hierarchy, among the company of the hot-headed ringmaster August and his beautiful wife Marlena --- the all-purpose female star of the show.
He also finds himself among the company of cantankerous midgets, gloriously endowed "men's entertainers" and a menagerie of exotic and soulful creatures. Gruen has proven herself a master at depicting the uncanny and often astounding bond between humans and animals, and the scenes with Jacob and the creatures under his care are nuanced and lovely. Gruen paints each creature's persona with as much care and detail as she does for the humans, subtly illuminating the similarities and undermining the concept of human superiority. In the Depression-era setting of Jacob's tale, the survival of the humans is inextricably intertwined with that of the animals; they all live in a kind of chaotically symbiotic state where a star horse's sickness could spell bankruptcy and the chance for redemption lies in the acquisition of an elephant named Rosie.
Exceptionally drawn as well is the development of a tentative bond between Jacob and Marlena. Jacob immediately is attracted to the lovely Marlena. She takes longer to reciprocate his affection, and throughout their cautious and hesitant budding romance the presence of Marlena's husband looms large and threatening. Gruen's pacing is excellent and the tension among Marlena, Jacob and August simmers and crackles before coming to a brutal and electrifying climax.
The transitions back and forth in time, and the mundane events that unfold as Jacob moans and gripes through his days at the nursing home, could have been, in the hands of a less skilled writer, jarring and distracting, breaking the flow and drawing the reader out of the story. But while the crazed, dramatic and often spectacularly bizarre world of the Benzini Brothers is fascinating, as the novel progresses the reader becomes equally drawn into Jacob's present world. His disdain for his aged body and regret over the confusing array of relatives who visit him intermittently and whose names are permanently muddied in his mind is deeply poignant.
Gruen spent years researching Depression-era circuses, and the breadth of her knowledge is revealed in all the tiny details that pepper Jacob's memories, but she also has a finely-tuned radar for the magic and mysteries of the human heart. The meat and madness of this novel may appear to lie in Jacob's memories of his younger self, but in her subtle exploration of Jacob as an old man, Gruen finds an equally compelling story.
Readers may find themselves churning through this book at a rapid-fire pace, eager to see what lies ahead, then slowing down as they realize the pages are dwindling. "Water for Elephants" is a book that can be read and reread, recommended and handed off between friends; it begs to be discussed and mulled over. With lines of startling beauty, haunting and evocative scenes and finely-drawn characters who dance off the page, readers can dip in and out of the novel, immersing themselves in Jacob's memories. The story and its characters will haunt readers long after they have resurfaced.