Water for Elephants follows the story of Jacob Jankowski, a young man whose fate is sealed when the death of his parents leads him to jump the train of a traveling circus. Those in charge of the circus are impressed with Jacob’s status as an almost-vet from Cornell, and they send him to take care of the show’s animals.
His run with the “Benzini Brothers’ Most Spectacular Show on Earth” is not easy, however, and Jacob faces struggles when he falls in love with the boss’s wife, Marlena, and consequently makes an enemy of the boss. He tries hard to protect those he loves, including his roommates, who are at risk of being thrown off the train, and the newest addition to the circus, Rosie the elephant.
Jacob’s tangled relationships with the members of the circus, his passion to protect the animals that face so much hardship working for the “most spectacular show on Earth,” and the shocking yet satisfying conclusion make this novel worth reading. Bruen does not romanticize life in a traveling circus — she did thorough research and based many events in the novel on stories from true Depression-era circuses. She exposes the gritty details of the lives that these performers and workers lead, making the story all the more realistic.
The characters are well fleshed out, with even the boss — the abusive antagonist — being able to claim some redeeming qualities, and as a reader, I vacillated between liking and despising many of the people that Gruen created. To enjoy a novel, I need to really believe in the characters, and Water for Elephants did not disappoint.
Despite the portrayal in the theatrical trailers, Water for Elephants is a love story in the loosest sense of the word. Although there is a love interest (Marlena) who is very important to Jacob, the novel focuses more on his relationship with the animals and conflict with the boss than on telling a romantic fairytale.
This coming-of -age novel about a boy who becomes a man in one of the roughest places one can grow up is a satisfying page-turner that is interesting as it reveals what life was like on the road for circus workers. It is worth reading and talking about, then reading again.
And now, finally, I am prepared to see the movie that I expect to be good — but not nearly as good as the book.