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Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen Book Review
Sara Gruen's New York Times Bestselling Water for Elephants is a gritty and spellbinding story that weaves Jacob Jankowski's adventurous youth as a circus vet with his confined existence as an old man in a nursing home. The result is a book you won't want to put down. If you are a literary type, you will pull a lot of additional layers of meaning from this story. If you are simply looking for a great summer read, this book can do that for you, too.
Gruen presents with searing reality an exotic world full of intense, bright colors, sickly sweet smells, and cacaphonous noises. The graphic descriptions in this novel will undoubtedly offend some readers. After an afternoon lost reading this page-turning novel, I emerged from this book as if suddenly aroused from an intense dream, or perhaps a nightmare.
Aging isn't Graceful
Jacob Jankowski, the main character of Gruen's novel, is 90 or 93, and hates the nursing home his children have placed him in. He is a prisoner in a non-functioning body and detests being treated like a child in a kindergarten.
What do you see when you enter the cafeteria of a nursing home? Gruen explores this theme subtly; it is a launch point for an otherwise fantastic and fast-paced story about a much younger version of this man. But why include this angle at all?
The contrast between the story of Jacob's early life and his life as a nursing home inmate is startling. At what point does the vibrant, full-life we live in our salad days become non-existent in the eyes of the world? Is the idea of a glorious youth just a fiction, especially in this novel of gruesome details and shocking imagery?
In our first youth, it is plausible to run away to the circus, but what about in our second childhood? Read this book and decide for yourself.
Youth isn't all that it's cracked up to be. Sometimes it's more, and sometimes more is too much.
America during The Great Depression is not the place to lose your parents and all your money. Faced with these realities, Jacob Jankowski runs away to join a cut-rate circus. And it's not glamorous. In fact, the experience is gruelling, depressing, and outrageous. People are treated like animals, animals are treated less than beasts, and average Americans are hoodwinked and bamboozled at every turn. But wow, what a story he tells!
Gruen uses Jankowski's personal rivalries, lust (or love, if you can call it that), and some strong villanous characters to tell multiple stories at once. Jacob Jankowski's personal life story merges with that of the circus train. He works his way up from the gruelling early-morning work crew into the inner-circle of the performers, who experience a priveleged existence compared to everyone else. Life in a cut-rate circus is shady, suspect, and not exactly family-fare, but it does make for a page-turning novel.
Add in one jealous, wife-beating husband, his beautiful, but off-limits wife who is poor and mistreated, and a lug-headed Jankowski, who can't seem to find a girlfriend who isn't already married, and you have a very interesting story, indeed.
How much water does an Elephant drink? A lot more than you will find on a circus train. This fascinating book vividly depicts life in a circus, from sunup to sundown.
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More Recommended Novels for Summer Reading
I love books about the American West, but I don't limit myself to the western genre. Here are some of my favorite novels with reviews.
The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner ♦ Till We Have Faces, A Myth Retold by C. S. Lewis ♦ The Awakening by Kate Chopin ♦ Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse ♦ Where You Once Belonged by Kent Haruf ♦ Bee Season by Myla Goldberg ♦ 12 Novels Featuring The American West ♦ Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris