"I may not know how to fly but I know how to read and that's almost the same thing."-- Gregory Maguire, Out of Oz

"...while finding true love was one of the most splendid things that could happen to you in life, finding a friend was equally splendid." -- Felix J Palma, The Map of the Sky

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Monday, August 5, 2013

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Main character Jacob Jankowski narrates this story, blending past and present life into brilliantly paced tale. I loved the idea of the narrator in a nursing home; the sad reality is, an old man who can't remember his age, isn't guaranteed a happy ending...So every page turned is a page closer to an ending I wasn't sure I wanted to see. When he reveals his past, it isn't much better; Jacob suddenly orphaned, broke, and homeless, hops onto a train in the middle of the night.

The setting was pretty amazing; a Depression era traveling circus complete with freaks and sideshows, but it was the characters that really sell it. Jacob is relatable in both old age and young; as an old man he reveals his frustration at being the one left standing, at being taken care of like a child. The horror of having a mind fairly intact, and being surrounded by people a few decades younger who are barely living. Pointing out, that even though we all age differently, we're all going to age eventually. In his younger years, he just wants to do right by his family; left without a family he winds up finding a new one. Obligations keep him standing in place even when instinct tells him its time to run. He's street-dumb and booksmart, he's a fighter and a survivor. His friends include a belligerent dwarf, a drunk and ailing roustabout, a stubborn elephant, a clingy chimp... His enemies include the cheapskate ringmaster who will do anything to put his circus in the history books, and a psychotic equestrian director who'll stop at nothing to keep the girl... And let's not forget the girl.

After all these bright, colorful characters, I admit the character of Marlena was a bit of a let down. It was your typical love at first sight set up, which didn't bother me as badly as her just being a pretty girl in sequins. She works with horses, but appears to know very little about them, and she doesn't know what she wants until she's already made a mess of everything. I think she starts out really weak and flat and then transforms into superwoman by the end and I don't get it.

Luckily the story isn't about Marlena. Its about Jacob, and Jacob's adventure is the kind I'd read multiple times over. Colorful heroes, scheming villains, a dramatic backdrop of circus tents, train cars, and exotic animals, and a strangely exciting adventure.

I'd recommend this book for anyone who ever wanted to run away with the circus...Or anyone who ever needed a reason not to...Either way its worth the read.

Rated 4/5
Review's original post date:
Jan 22, 13

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