Any novel written in the first person runs the risk of a common, unremarkable narrator, far more than a third person narration. Part of the joy of reading Gruen’s Water for Elephants is the memorable narrator in Jacob Jankowski, particularly when it is the elderly version of Jacob speaking. He describes himself as “90. Or 93.” The elder Jacob’s narrative is interwoven with that of a Jacob in his twenties.
The elder’s storyline — Jacob in a nursing home — is amusing and sad at the same time, but ends wonderfully, bringing the story to full circle. Jacob’s descriptions of the fellow home residents, the caregivers, his family, and the vagaries and trials of growing old are amusing and touching. Jacob feels abandoned by his family and frustrated by the limitations of his life. He gets into a fight with another resident who claims he used to carry water for elephants. Jacob calls him a liar and we are transported back to the 1930’s. (I listened to the audiobook and John Randall Jones is outstanding as the elder Jacob – an added bonus.)
The main story is of younger Jacob. After the death of his parents, before he graduates from veterinary school, he learns his parents were in debt. With nothing and distracted, he skips out on his exams and hops a train. He ends up working with a train circus as a vet, because he is ‘close enough.’ His summer with the circus involves danger, intrigue, and love. And the story of his work with an elephant named Rosie.
The book is filled with wonderful unique characters and a thoroughly engaging world of the circus. Jacob has to navigate the complex social milieu he finds himself in, with performers and workers in two different classes, and even those divided by a hierarchy. As the circus vet, he works with the animals and when the circus takes on a seemingly difficult to work with elephant, Rosie, he develops a special bond with her. Rosie is a great character and much of the plot revolves around her in many ways.
Jacob falls for Marlena, who works the equestrian acts, and happens to be the wife of the mercurial August, who handles the animal acts. Marlena ends up working with Rosie as well, helping develop an act which the circus knows will bring in the money. But through Jacob, we also learn the brutality of the circus as well — men no longer needed, injured or who anger August are tossed from the moving train; the frantic rush to buy out other circus acts when they collapse financially, and the reality that oftentimes when audiences don’t fill up the show, workers go unpaid. Then the relationship with Jacob and Marlena builds, as does August’s paranoia and anger, and the circus faces more hurdles and issues. The tension builds until the well-written climax.
The novel is peopled with other great characters — Walter, the dwarf clown, Camel, the old drunk worker and Uncle Al, the wheeling and dealing owner of the circus. The one flaw of the novel for me was Marlena – she was not as well-drawn as some of the others and I wanted more of her. She fell short of being a match of the almost larger-than-life Jacob and August.
The older Jacob narrative was well done, with Gruen capturing the angst and humor of growing old. The interaction between Jacob and his favorite nurse are touching and funny.
Gruen wrote a tight and quick-moving narrative; the action and tension of the main narrative played off against the slower narrative of the elder Jacob. Gruen’s descriptions were detailed but never exhaustive or overdone.
Water For Elephants is an entertaining story, emotional without being melodrama, with interesting characters and interesting setting. Gruen’s novel isn’t deep literary fiction exploring the big questions of life but rather a beautifully told story of one man, his coming of age, his first love, an unexpected summer filled with adventure as well as his poignant moments of nostalgia and longing for that life.