I had desperately hoped that the library would send me one of the original copies of Water for Elephants. You know, one without a picture of Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon on the front. Alas, it was not to be and the copy I received has the two of them nestled in each other’s arms. Not off to a great start, as I really don’t have much appreciation for either actors. Anyways, cover art aside, Water for Elephants was a very interesting read. Although the characters were a little clichéd, I found that the atmosphere of a 1930s carnival came alive in the novel.
Jacob Janowski is an honour student, attending Cornell to become a veterinarian. He is days away from writing his final exams when his parents are tragically killed. He has no money, no home and nothing to live for. He jumps on a moving train on a whim and ends up on the Benzini Brothers’ Most Spectacular Show on Earth’s train. And soon Jacob becomes the resident veterinarian for the crumbling circus. Jacob wants no trouble, but he finds himself falling in love with Marlena, a star performer who is married to the cruel animal handler August. Jacob must give everything he has to try and escape the imploding show alive before it’s too late.
The entire story about Jacob working for the circus is one big flashback told by Jacob as he, now in his 90s, lives in an old age home. The parts that tell Jacob’s life in the present are touching and they really give us an understanding of what the elderly must feel, sitting alone day after day. Jacob’s character is strong, albeit somewhat predictable. I would have liked to see more character development in Marlena however. I got the feeling that I didn’t know Marlena at all, nor why Jacob is so desperately in love with her. Many of the minor characters are what you would expect: cranky, fake Uncle Al leading the show, the working men who are rough around the edges and underpaid, the performers who want nothing to do with the working men, and so on. They are quite stereotypical but stereotypes come from truth, so perhaps it’s an accurate portrait of the workers. I enjoyed the fact that the book is not centered on romance. There is romance, obviously, but the main plot of the book has little to do with love until the very end. I was pleasantly surprised.
The plot moved at a steady pace, with interesting (although not unexpected) twists and turns. Sara Gruen does a marvelous job of building the suspense as the story reaches its climax. One thing that I found disappointing was the bad language. The book is riddled with vulgar words and swearing. This is probably realistic, given the setting, but at some points it made me uncomfortable how easily such depraved words and phrases were thrown around. The end of the book was quite happy, and it left me smiling. I had fallen in love with 90-year-old Jacob Janowski, and I couldn’t have been more pleased with how his life progressed.
Water for Elephants was an interesting book, and I’ll bet the movie is too, although I doubt it will be very true to the story. Hollywood loves romantic stories, and I think the essence of Jacob’s life will be lost. They will, undoubtedly, focus entirely on Jacob and Marlena’s relationship. The movie will be filed in my mind as one of those ‘hey, I should watch that sometime’ movies and then I’ll never end up renting it. Which is probably just as well because I don’t need the poor choice of language repeated, this time, out loud.