TBML's Reviews > Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
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's review
Jun 30, 2009

it was amazing
Read in March, 2008

This was one of the Branigan BookClub selections for April 2008. Temple Grandin's Animlas in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior was the other.

Jacob Jankowski is living in his memory as the book opens. On a time-line of events the book relates, this is somewhere a bit before the middle of the story, at one of the more exciting, pivotal events. But let's jump ahead to the end of that linear chronology.

Jankowski is 90 or 93 (he can't remember which) and living in a nursing home. The tale consists of alternating reminiscences about his life and acid comments on his present condition.

As a young man who almost finished veterinary school in the late 1920s, he literally ran away with the circus and worked for years as a circus vet. During this time he met the two great loves of his life, Marlena, married to the perversely sadistic ringmaster; and Rosie, the elephant.
To tell you much more would spoil the surprises and seriously diminish the enjoyment of relishing the thrills in this book for yourself.

And there are enough thrills and surprises to make any circus magician worth their 'hey, presto!' wildly jealous. Gruen painstakingly re-searched the world of the traveling circuses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for this book. Blessings on her for so doing! There is an authenticity about Water for Elephants that gets under your skin and into the back of your throat. You can almost hear the midway barker, can almost smell the popcorn, the animals, the sawdust underfoot, can feel the life pulse of the circus beating on every page. This is not a book for the fainthearted since much of that undercurrent was savage, dark and cruel, and Ms. Gruen portrays it unflinchingly. In the end, though it is a book about hope, about family and about the redemptive power of friendship and love. How much better can a book get!?

As if that were not enough, there is a whole cast of characters so deftly drawn that you know them and can almost (I say almost, because Gruen is the gifted writer who, just when you think you know a charac-ter, has her or him surprise you!) tell what the will do next.

My favorites are Marlena, Rosie and old Jankowski himself. This is a book that I will long remember with great fondness. I hope you do as well.
--Mark Pendleton


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