Saturday, February 10, 2007

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Title: Water for Elephants
Author: Sara Gruen
Rating: A-
Pages: 335

Jacob Jankowsi is ninety. Or ninety-three. He has lived a fulfilling life, yet is plagued by someone else's secret. Her secret is the story of this novel, told from Jacob's perspective. At the age of twenty-three, after the tragic death of his parents, Jacob flees veterinary school at Cornell and hops aboard the train of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Hired to care for the animals, such begins a story of a varied group of people and animals, trying to make their way through the height of the Great Depression. Being kicked off the show means certain homelessness, and possible starvation.

Jacob meets a variety of characters that make the novel such a treat: Walter and Queenie, a dwarf clown performer and his dog; Marlena, one of the star performers; Camel, a baggage stock bloke who has run into some bad luck; Rosie, a loyal elephant and loving to those who treat her right; Rex the toothless lion, and many many more.

The story flows back and forth between the young 1920's Jacob and the present-day, cantankerous and feisty Old Jacob. Sara Gruen does a wonderful job of whisking you away to the world of the circus in the 1920's, and her meticulous research shines through. The animals really make this story, which is why the scenes of neglect become so heart-wrenching (especially if you are like moi, an animal lover). The ending was absolutely perfect, which ends in the present day with Old Jacob, but that's all I'm going to say.

More than anything, this story resurfaced my unfulfilled wish of being able to go back and time and talk to my grandmother about her life. After severe bouts of depression and numerous ECT treatments (when ECT was still very problematic), by grandmother was unable to recover many of her memories. Which also brings me to one of the few minor discrepancies in the novel. My grandmother was diagnosed as bipolar, which she was not (she did have major depressive disorder-the most common mental illness among elderly). August, the equestrian director and Marlena's husband, is described as paranoid schizophrenic. Yet, the term "schizophrenia" only began to be used after 1911, and the subset "paranoid schizophrenia" appeared officially in the DSM III in the 1980's. Small detail, as August very well could have been paranoid schizophrenic, but I'm highly doubtful that the circus manager would have known that in the 1920's. And now I'll push my psychology education back into its little compartment now. :)

My favorite quotes:
"I don't talk much about those days. Never did. I don't know why--I worked on circuses for nearly seven years, and if that isn't fodder for conversation, I don't know what is.
Actually, I do know why: I never trusted myself. I was afraid I'd let it slip. I knew how important it was to keep her secret, and keep it I did--for the rest of her life, and beyond. In seventy years, I've never told a blessed soul."

"The memory of last night htis me like a wrecking ball. I squeeze my eyes shut, trying to force my mind to go blank, but it won't. The more distressing the memory, the more persistent its presence."

"Walter and Camel spend the night making the noises men make when they're trying not to cry, and I spend the night punching my pillow up around my ears trying not to hear them."

"August marches off. I turn back to Rosie. She stares at me, a look of unspeakable sadness on her face. Her amber eyes are filled with tears."


Joy said...

I'm glad you enjoyed this book as much as I did. I think I rated it a 4.5/5. Great quotes you picked. :)

Happy Reader said...

I loved reading this book and I am glad you liked it! Wonderful review!

3M said...

I'm glad you enjoyed this book. I don't have it slated until next year, but I'm looking forward to reading it.

About the Times Top 10 List--they took 125 authors from today and polled them on their top ten. They then used a formula to calculate a summary Top Ten of all 125 authors.

Happy Reading!

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Top Criminal Defense Attorneys McKinney, view site said...

Sara Gruen writes an interesting afterword to the novel in which she reveals how she came up with the idea and the extensive research that she embarked on before completing her tale. Her hard work paid off. I really learned a lot about a milieu that I knew very little of prior to reading the book. I cannot recommend this novel too highly.