It’s been a while since I completed this book for my 50 Novel reading challenge but I remember it vividly; such was the grip that the story had on me. Quite simply Water for Elephants is an exceptional read and one that any reader should not miss out on. I’ve given a brief synopsis of this book in my forethoughts so I won’t go to any great length detailing the novel’s storyline again, other than to say it’s a novel about a circus struggling to survive the Depression-era years in America, or more specifically circus life from the perspective of an ad hoc ‘veterinarian’ – Jacob Jankowski, who jumped on the Benzini Brothers circus train by chance, one evening.
The action in Water for Elephants is fast-paced; more than sufficient to keep the reader glued to the pages. ‘Pit stops’ to the action comes in the form of the story reverting back to the nursing home of the present-day, where Jacob is finding his aged infirmity almost intolerable. These respites back to present-day are brief though, and inevitably the narrative shoots back quickly to Jacob’s circus days where the action regains its breakneck speed.
Gruen has really done her ‘homework’ while researching for this novel. She’s created a circus world that’s wholly believable; one that you feel right in the midst of (especially when she intersperses the chapters with contemporary circus photos). Gruen tells us in the ‘author’s note’ at the back of the novel that she had researched extensively for Water for Elephants and it shows! So much so that you can almost smell the menagerie, and the sawdust of the circus ring.
What really makes Water for Elephants special for me though (aside from the great storyline) is the characters. Gruen has done a remarkable job of creating some truly colourful and memorable people in the pages of her novel. Uncle Al (the circus boss) and August (the animal trainer) are characters you’re going to love to hate. Marlena, Kinko the Clown aka Walter, and Camel are character’s you’re just going to love. You’re going to love the chief protagonist Jacob Jankowski too. Personally I found him more endearing in his role as the ‘present day’ Nonagenarian, but his struggle to fit into circus life, gain acceptance from his peers and deal with the urges of his love interest, make him a hugely engaging character.
In summing up I’d say that that Water for Elephants is one of these rare novels that will both thrill you and shock you at the same time. I really want to tell you everything about the story because it’s so good, but also I don’t want to tell you anything, because it will spoil the thrilling ‘ride’ you’re going to find yourself on when you read this novel. Sufficed to say that the story grips and twists almost ceaselessly on its way towards a quite thrilling climax. Miss this at your own peril!
Note: I should probably point out that the novel does contain some sexual content which could be considered for the more mature audience, so I probably wouldn’t recommend this to anyone under 15. On the other hand I may just be being a little prudish, so perhaps you may want to check out the mature content yourself before passing the book on to any juniors (chap 3. pp.44-47, chap 8 p.97 and chap 10 pp.133-135 contain the ‘offending’ material).
“I used to carry water for the elephants,” says McGuinty.
I drop my fork and look up. He is positively dripping with self-satisfaction, just waiting for the girls to fawn over him.
“You did not,” I say.
There is a beat of silence.
“I beg your pardon? He says.
“You did not carry water for the elephants.”
“Yes, I most certainly did.”
“No you didn’t.”
Favourite Scene: It’s difficult to detail my favourite scene without giving away a major spoiler, so choosing a lesser favourite it has to be when Jacob has an epithany as to why Rosie the elephant isn’t doing what she is told.
What this novel has taught me about writing: The importance of doing thorough research when writing fiction. It can really pay dividends in the long run, giving your story more depth and realism.