Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

I was excited to read Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, it had all the elements I was looking for, the circus setting, the depression era time period, and I'm not ashamed to say it: the handsome cover. I certainly was not expecting to find such a gem in this light summer reading expedition.

"Oh yes. It's an honor indeed. I'm willing to bet no one else in your neighborhood -- heck, probably the whole city -- can say they've had an elephant in their backyard. Our men here will remove her -- naturally, we'll fix up your garden and compensate you for your produce, too. Would you like us to arrange for a photograph of you and Rosie? Something to show your family and friends?"

Gruen's gritty narrative, told as a series of flashbacks, provides a fictionalized glimpse at circus life in 1930s. Penniless and having just walked out on his exams, Jacob Jankowski finds himself hopping onto a train, like so many other drifters, hoping that it will lead him somewhere better than where he left. Instead he is thrust into a world very different than the Ivy-league shelter as he is employed as the resident veterinarian for the menagerie of a circus. The Benzini Brothers Most Amazing Show, like many other circuses of that time period, was not just home to performers and exotic animals, but to numerous taboos, like prostitution, bootlegging, and shady business practices.

The characters were engaging and well-created and Gruen's descriptions of their actions and emotions as told through the eyes of Jacob carefully navigated you through a gauntlet of emotions, from frustration and anger, to bitter embarrassment. I still feel a bit of a blush when thinking about the aftermath of Jacob's horrifyingly uncomfortable encounter with booze, women, and a clown's revenge.

The unique setting of circus life during the Great Depression provides the perfect touch of history, realism, and surrealism to this tale of a young man's search to find himself in an increasingly mad world. It was a gritty, desperate time in America's history and the shady backdrop of a migratory circus fits well. The descriptions are clear and vibrant and instead of leaving you with the feeling you just sat through a history lesson, you are transported. It was this originality and promise of escape that drew me to reading this book and I was not disappointed.

1 comment:

Cath Brookes said...

Unusual subject matter enlightened me about a topic I knew nothing about. The characters sprang to life in an era when the circus traveled by train and the lives of the performers were creative in their means of existence. Hard and cruel, tender and loving, I fell in love with the characters including the elephants! A great read.
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