Friday, March 2, 2012

Water for Elephants

I haven't read too many American historical novels, only because there are so many more European historical novels that took up most of my time and not because I'm geographically biased or anything :)
A colleague, who mostly reads crime, mystery and thrillers, recommended this book telling me that she never expected to like it, but did. I must say I concur with her opinion. I didn't expect to like it, but I did.

Water for Elephants, written by Sara Gruen, is written in the first person by Jacob Jankowski, a ninety or ninety-three year old resident of a nursing home. The story drifts between the ninety or ninety three year old and the twenty three year old.
Jacob, a veterinary student at Cornell, loses his parents in a car accident just before his final exams. Shocked and taken over by this intense loss, which also costs him his family house and his father's practice, Jacob wanders about and in a moment of, what I term, insanity, climbs aboard a train hoping to get back to civilization. He realizes that the train is that of a circus, Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. One of the workmen, Camel, helps Jacob out and finds him work with the circus, work as in clearing out the stables' carriage, etc. When the head trainer, August Rosenbluth, learns of his training as a doctor he makes Jacob the circus vet. Jacob, unfortunately, is fascinated by August's wife, Marlena.
In the present day, the older Jacob is waiting for some of his family to visit him, as they do every Sunday, and take him to the circus, which has set up camp just outside the nursing home. He gets angry with another resident who charms the female residents with tales of his carrying water for an elephant at a circus. No one knows that Mr. Jankowski had been with a circus. One of the nurses, Rosemary, whom Jacob mistakenly calls Rosie in a moment of dwelling in the past, is rather kind to him, and goes out of her way to make him feel good.
Jacob, the twenty-three year old circus vet, acts as a sort of intermediate peson, between the workmen and the performers, as both arcs of circus lives are related to the reader. He finds out about Uncle Al, the big circus owner, redlighting, or throwing off the train, workers that have slacked in their duty, or those that have caused offense or done something wrong, his money troubles, when he withholds pay, and his need for August and Marlena to be on good terms so that the show can go on. His aim, Jacob realizes, is to be as good as the Ringling Brothers Circus. As they tour through the mid-west, Jacob gets more attached to the animals in the menagerie, an orangutan named Bobo, and an elephant, that they acquire from a circus that shuts down, called Rosie. August, who can be charming and brutal - this is blamed on him being a paranoid schizophrenic, finds it impossible to train Rosie, who seems to only eat and poop, steal lemonade meant for the people and run off into cabbage patches. It's Jacob that realizes that Rosie was trained in Polish, and so he teaches August the necessary lines to enable him to get Rosie to perform, and suddenly the Benzini Brothers seem to be on the road to reformation. In the mean time, Jacob falls completely in love with Marlena, actually finds a good friend in Kinko, the dwarf he shares his sleeping quarters with, begins to hate August, who starts to suspect Marlena and Jacob of having an affair.
It takes about three quarters of the story to come to the climax of who is actually the murderer of the man that the first two pages of the novel begins with. And how Jacob came to be in the nursing home. Without giving too much away, let me just say, that in time Jacob does lead a fulfilling life. He says so himself in the first few chapters. He finds and experiences life in a span of three and a half months. During the Great Depression, no less.
So it does make for a good read. I didn't expect to like it, really, but I did. Most historical American novels set in this time period deal with the Great Depression, and that's either highly inspiring or very depressing. There're seemed to be nothing else written about it! This book definitely deals with a different aspect of life in that era. The writing style is simple and flowing, you'd breeze through it quickly, if you sat up for maybe four or five hours - that's how long it took me. There isn't much history in it, if that's what you're looking for, but there's enough of detail about circuses at the time that makes it fun to imagine what it might've been like.
I must lay down here that I have no intention of watching the movie. Maybe I'd fold and watch it for Christoph Waltz who plays August, but definitely not for the actors that play Jacob and Marlena.