Jacob Jankowski is 90. Or 93. One or the other, as he puts it. We meet Jacob as a cranky old man living in a nursing home watching the days pass by. He spends his days annoyed at the nurses, the other elderly patients and life for the most part.
One thing Jacob does have though are his memories of his days with the circus. Jacob takes us back to the very beginning and shares his story - a story about how life takes unexpected turns but those can sometimes lead you on the most exciting paths.
Jacob was just about to finish his final year in veterinarian school when his parents were suddenly killed in a car accident. Left stunned, with no money and lost, Jacob just starts walking. He eventually hops on a freight car of a passing train and his life with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth begins.
The circus, in 1930s America, is a second-rate show at best, and is run by Uncle Al, a selfish bully who takes what he can from everyone around him. The animals are underfed, mangy and sick. August, the animal trainer, is a paranoid schizophrenic who locks his gaze on Jacob right away. Whether August is threatened, or just crazy, Jacob spends most of his days avoiding his wrath and fists.
August doesn’t just beat Jacob though. He also beats the animals and his wife, the beautiful star performer Marlena, whom Jacob just happens to fall in love with. Marlena, however, isn’t the only girl Jacob falls in love with. There’s also Rosie, the stubborn, highly intelligent elephant. As Jacob recounts the story, we get a glimpse into the hard road life of a traveling circus, the connections he made with the animals, and the people that surrounded him.
“Water for Elephants” is full of vibrant, rich characters. From the animals themselves to the midgets to the freaks, everyone you meet comes to life and sticks in your mind.
One of the best things about “Water for Elephants” is the extensive research that Gruen must have done to truly capture the life of a traveling circus in Depression-era America. She captures the speech, the music, the performances, even the songs they play when things are going horribly wrong.
“Water for Elephants” pulled me in from the first page and didn’t let go until the end. It’s an exciting story of love, murder and life under the big top of the circus.
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