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A Love Affair: Rosie, Marlena and Jacob

  • Dec 15, 2008
"Water for Elephants" is another of those novels that I somehow managed to miss reading when it was at its peak of popularity, this time by well over two years. But I'm here to tell you that, in the case of Water for Elephants, it is definitely better late than never.

Even in Depression-era America, Jacob Jankowski is doing pretty well for himself. He is a Cornell-trained veterinarian who only needs to sit for his final exams to make it official. He thinks he is in love but his lack of experience with the ladies means that he is more likely to be in lust than in love. For him, life is still pretty good.

But things change sometimes when one least expects it, and for Jacob change comes in the form of a tragic traffic accident that claims the lives of both his parents. As bad as that is, it gets even worse when he learns that he has also been left destitute because his parents mortgaged everything to pay his Cornell tuition, and Jacob finds that he cannot sit still even long enough to finish his exams. Wanting to get away from it all, he hops the first freight train that comes along, avoids getting thrown back onto the tracks, and soon enough finds himself a member of Benzini Brothers traveling circus.

Sara Gruen lets Jacob tell his own story by alternating the first person narrative of ninety-something-year-old Jacob, now living in a nursing home, with the voice of twenty-three-year-old Jacob as he experiences his summer with the Benzini Brothers. And what a story it is because the Benzini Brothers circus is not exactly The Ringling Brothers show and only circus owner, Uncle Al, tries to pretend that it is. Everything about the Benzini Brothers is second rate: the ragged animals in the zoo's menagerie are badly treated and lucky to eat once a day, the roustabouts and other workers are not paid consistently, the freaks are usually fakes or not all that freakish in the first place, and the girly show performer has been known to take paying customers after show hours.

Jacob manages to catch on permanently with the show even with his incomplete veterinarian credentials and all goes relatively well until he falls in love with two ladies: Rosie, the elephant who joins the circus after he does, and Marlena, the beautiful young equestrian performer unfortunately married to the sadistic August, a man who beats both Marlena and Rosie.

Gruen paints an unforgettable picture of life in a small-time Depression-era circus, an environment filled with filth, underfed animals and humans, cruelty, alcohol abuse, varying degrees of crime, lust, and callousness. Jacob, appalled at what he sees and what he learns about August, Marlena and Uncle Al, fights to maintain his sense of decency in a world he never knew existed, but his love for a married woman and his guilt at not doing more to defend Rosie from the beatings she suffers at the hands of August has him doubting himself.

Surprisingly, as intriguing as the young Jacob's story is, the nursing home predicament that the older Jacob finds himself in is an equally touching one. The audio version of "Water for Elephants" (10 CDs and 11 ½ hours long) is read by David LeDoux, as the young Jacob Jankowski and John Randolph Jones, who turns in an absolutely brilliant performance as Jacob, the old man. Frankly, both of the worlds created by Gruen are somewhat horrifying and both will linger in my memory for a long time.

"Water for Elephants" is, however, a tiny bit blemished by its unlikely ending even though it is the kind of fairy tale ending that I personally would have wished for Mr. Jankowski. Some things, though, are just too good to be true - or to ring true in a novel even as good as this one.

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More Water for Elephants: A Novel reviews
review by . June 05, 2011
We've all had the pleasure of reading and enjoying a book so much that we simply could not put it down, right?  And we've all heard the expression, "It was a real page turner!"  These both hold true for Sara Gruen's book, Water for Elephants.  It is a mesmerizing and simple tale filled with a brilliant cast of characters, good humor and intense desperation at some moments.  It doesn't try so hard to be elegant and poise, but it does it's best to …
review by . September 17, 2008
Let me be the 1,455th to tell you about this modern classic!    Poignant, funny, happy, sad, violent, tender, this circus story hits every emotion in perfect pitch and pacing, told through the eyes of an old man (not sure how old) abandoned (not quite) by his family (large and loving and dutiful) in a nursing home who is spurred to remembrance of his Depression years on the circus by the sight of a circus outside his nursing home room.    The title job is …
review by . August 06, 2010
As an avid reader of compelling fiction novels, I felt that Sara Gruen's "Water for Elephants" was an absolute treat to read. She effectively used humor without being too overwhelmingly with her wit. The novel is structured in a way - with a an elderly man telling the story of time spend in the circus - that enables to the reader to become completely immersed not only in the plot of the novel, but in the life of the "narrator".       …
review by . June 22, 2010
Water For Elephants brings readers into the nursing home life and memories of ninety-(or ninety-three, he isn’t sure) year-old Jacob Jankowski, a cantankerous yet lovable old man who once worked on the circus. The prologue immediately draws readers into the excitement, complex love, and drama of life under the Big Top when the circus performance erupts in disaster and chaos, leaving Jacob to witness a scene that he will not reveal for the next seventy years. Though readers know the secret …
review by . June 27, 2010
I could not possibly recommend this book more; it is one of my favorite of all time. There are so many elements to this story; it is a tale of love, of pain and heart ache, of history and hard times, of adventure and a world most of us will never see. The book encompasses an entire life span, and is written so well that even the minute cliche elements feel true. It is filled with gut and heart-wrenching emotions and has a plot that keeps the pages turning. When I finished this book for the first …
review by . March 24, 2010
Absolutely wonderful
Ninety-year old Jacob lives in a nursing home where he spends most days parked in the hallway, waiting for Sundays when a visitor comes. He's excited because a traveling circus has set up next door and he can't wait to go. He flashes back to his youth during the Depression, when he was penniless and joined a third-rate circus as an almost-qualified vet. There, he fell in love with Marlena, the beautiful star horsewoman. Unfortunately, his boss was her brutish husband.       I …
review by . August 11, 2010
This is one of the first adult novels I have read in a while. I say that because I am a YA writer, so I try to ground myself in YA. However, this book was not a chore to read. I heard about this book through the production of its movie. The plot had me interested, so I did a little digging to find the book- it was really hard to find it cheap because it gained popularity so quickly. I got through this book so quickly, I couldn't believe I was done. The way Sara tells this story is amazing. I …
Quick Tip by . August 06, 2010
I almost managed to read this book in one sitting! It is ridiculously entertaining. Romance, danger, men with anger issues, a wise elephant... what more can one ask for in a fun read? I really enjoyed the way the the story was set up, switching from past to present pretty fluidly and with one overarching mystery that resolves itself in a highly satisfactory manner.
Quick Tip by . July 04, 2010
Melville gives new meaning to the word Obsession. But along the way he paints a wonderful potrait of American life on the sea in the mid 1800's.
Quick Tip by . July 02, 2010
Touching story, wonderfully written
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Sam Sattler ()
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Oil company professional of almost 40 years experience who has worked in oil-producing countries around the world. I love books, baseball and bluegrass music and hope to dedicate myself to those hobbies … more
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Jacob Jankowski says: "I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other." At the beginning ofWater for Elephants, he is living out his days in a nursing home, hating every second of it. His life wasn't always like this, however, because Jacob ran away and joined the circus when he was twenty-one. It wasn't a romantic, carefree decision, to be sure. His parents were killed in an auto accident one week before he was to sit for his veterinary medicine exams at Cornell. He buried his parents, learned that they left him nothing because they had mortgaged everything to pay his tuition, returned to school, went to the exams, and didn't write a single word. He walked out without completing the test and wound up on a circus train. The circus he joins, in Depression-era America, is second-rate at best. With Ringling Brothers as the standard, Benzini Brothers is far down the scale and pale by comparison.

Water for Elephants is the story of Jacob's life with this circus. Sara Gruen spares no detail in chronicling the squalid, filthy, brutish circumstances in which he finds himself. The animals are mangy, underfed or fed rotten food, and abused. Jacob, once it becomes known that he has veterinary skills, is put in charge of the "menagerie" and all its ills. Uncle Al, the circus impresario, is a self-serving, venal creep who slaps people around because he can. August, the animal trainer, is a certified paranoid schizophrenic whose occasional flights into ...

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ISBN-10: 1565125606
ISBN-13: 978-1565125605
Author: Sara Gruen
Genre: Literature & Fiction
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Date Published: April 9, 2007
Format: Paperback: 350 pages, Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.4 x 1.1 inches
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