“Life is the most spectacular show on Earth:” My review of Water for Elephants

I’ve never been much for circuses. Especially due to a fairly intense fear of clowns that I have. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that I have not once in my life graced a big top. Until now.

I technically did not physically go to a circus. But my mind’s eye sure as daylight took me there when I read Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants. I had heard nothing but great things about this book prior to reading it but had to wait until Christmas break to enjoy it for myself. About two days after picking it up from the library I was perusing the web and came across the trailer for the movie version coming out in April. And if you have seen it, you will know that it stars Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon. And if you know anything about me, you not only know that I squealed with delight, but that I immediately dived into the book within the next hour. And I finished it three days later.

The story is told in a long series of flashbacks through the mind of Jacob Jankowski, the main character. When the book starts off, Jacob is a ninety year old gruff in a nursing home who is forced to relive his days on the circus train when a Big Top pops up across the street. Jacob goes from being a Cornell veterinary student with a bright future ahead of him to an orphan shoveling horse manure on a circus train, to the new circus vet caught up in an intense love triangle with the equestrian performer and her schizophrenic and rather hostile husband.

This book is electrifying, completely engaging, morbid, romantic, and everything in between. It gives you the real world feel of what circus life was like back during the Depression and takes you behind the dark and gruesome scenes both under the big top and on board the circus train during the long hauls between cities. The detailing is so intricate and you can definitely tell that Gruen did her research before starting this book because a lot of the information is dead on and truly puts you right on the scene.

You meet all the circus characters from the animal trainers, to the angry dwarf, to the fat lady, the tattooed freak, the money glutton of a ringmaster, and of course the silent heroine of the whole book, Rosie the elephant. This book is old-world Americana at its best but it’s no Ringling Brothers, I can tell you that much.


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