Friday, April 22, 2011

A Year in Books: Water for Elephants

"You didn't just jump a train, boy. You done jumped the Flying Squadron of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth."
"The what?" I say.
Camel laughs so hard he doubles over. "Ah, that's precious. Precious indeed," he says, sniffing and wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. "Ah, me. You done landed yer ass on a circus, boy."

Since today is the release date for the movie adaptation, I thought I’d start my A Year in Books review series with WATER FOR ELEPHANTS by Sara Gruen. I’d heard whispers about the book, but it was only after hearing Reese Witherspoon and Rob Pattinson were starring in the movie that I picked it up. By the end of the prologue, I was hooked, and I’d finished the story within a week.

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is written from two points of view, both from the same person. There’s ninety year old (or ninety-three year old, he’s not quite sure) Jacob Jankowski, a cranky nursing home patient, giving us the present narration. But the majority of the story is written in flashbacks, told from the perspective of Jacob at age twenty three in the 1930s. His parents have just been killed in a car accident, and he leaves college without taking his senior year exams. He ends up hopping on a train at random, and it just happens to be home to the Benzini Brothers circus. 

Jacob becomes the veterinarian for the circus animals (since that was his field of study in college), and develops a special relationship with Rosie, the elephant that the Benzini Brothers acquire. He also falls in love with Marlena, the wife of the harsh—and sometimes violent—head animal trainer. This poses a huge problem, because members of the circus who do not behave in a manner the higher-ups deem acceptable are red-lighted (thrown off a moving train), or sometimes even worse. And Marlena’s husband, August, holds almost all the power.

Everything about this book is beautiful. Even when the characters are dirty, beaten up, or cursing, I still found it beautiful. The emotions are honest and raw, and the details of the traveling circus—while sometimes horrifying—seemed spot on and painted such a vivid picture. Clearly Sara Gruen meticulously researched every aspect of circuses, from the slang terms to the treatment of the animals. It was a world I’d never actually experienced, but I feel as if I know everything about it now.

I promise you will fall in love with Rosie, the elephant with a sneaky sense of humor. And ninety (or ninety-three) year old Jacob provides hilariously dry sarcasm. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a unique and beautiful story (with elephants).

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