Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Water for Elephants

When I was in elementary school we used to get scholastic book orders. Every few months you would get handed out a little catalog, where you could order a variety of books, then would receive them a couple weeks later. Looking through the colorful pages, staring, dog tagging, and highlighting the books I wanted, then waiting for the glorious day when the books arrived and got to take them home and add them to my book shelf, was one of my favorite things. Throughout the years this excitement for new books has continued, however it left me with a lot of unread pages on my shelves. Throughout the recent weeks I have been trying to not only read new books, but read books that I had bought previously, and never quite got around to.

This week I decided to read Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Like Eat Pray Love, I had begun reading this book, made it a couple chapters, but for some reason could not get into it. However, going along with the idea of actually reading all the books I have bought, I decided to give it another try, and am so thrilled that I did. Water for Elephants was beautifully written, illuminated by a wonderful sense of time and place. It tells a story of a love between two people that overcomes incredible odds in a world in which even "love is a luxury that few can afford".

In chapters that move flawlessly back and forth in time, from the rowdy circus atmosphere to the antiseptic corridors of the assisted living home, the world is viewed through Jacob Jonkowski, a ninety-something-year-old man's perspective, as he rages helplessly against the decrepitude of old age and the secrets of the past. In prose both poignant and infinitely tender, Jacob dwells in both worlds, revealing the wounds of the past and the sorrows of the present.

Stripped of everything after his parents’ untimely death, the twenty-three-year-old Jacob fails to sit for his veterinary exams at Cornell. Grief-stricken and robbed of home and future, he jumps onto a passing train, only to discover in the morning that it belongs to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. It's here that Jacob enters an atmospheric, gritty world of freaks, drifters, and misfits, a second-rate circus struggling to survive during the Great Depression, making one-night stands in town after endless town.

When Jacobs veterinary skills are discovered, he is put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie, where the animals are mangy, underfed, and abused. He develops a guarded relationship with August, the head trainer, who is obsessively jealous and given to unspeakable cruelties, and his wife Marlena, the star performer and equestrian, with whom Jacob falls in love with.
"Caught between his love for Marlena and his need for belonging, Jacob is freed only by a murderous secret that will bring the big top down." Uncle Al, Benzini Brothers circus impresario, is a ruthless businessman who cares little for man or beast, engaged in a quest for fame to rival the great Ringling Brothers circus. With his training in veterinary medicine, Jacob does his best to protect the animals from their harsh existence, especially Rosie the baffling elephant, and new edition to the circus, who he shares a deep kinship with, truly evoking the magic a circus can create.

Among a train filled with a raggedy tribe of miscreants and lost souls, friends and foes, skillfully humanized by Gruen, Jacob, the self-appointed protector of the downtrodden, is the only person who has a handle on a moral compass, and as his reward he spends most of the novel beaten, broken, concussed, bleeding, swollen and hungover. The circus, a world filled with freaks and clowns, with wonder, pain, anger and passion; a world with its own narrow, irrational rules, its own way of life, and its own way of death. The world of the circus: to Jacob it was both salvation and a living hell.

The story is related in the somber tones of the Depression, the hardscrabble and often unscrupulous business of a traveling circus and the heartless despots who make their fortunes on the backs of men who must do anything to survive. Gruen spares no detail in chronicling the squalid, filthy, brutish circumstances in which Jacob and the circus find themselves. One of the many pleasures of this novel is the opportunity to enter a bizarrely coded and private world with its own laws, superstitions and vocabulary. Water for Elephants is a well-researched adventure into the weird and charming universe of the Depression-era circus, where the magic of the story and the writing convince you to suspend your disbelief.

Circuses showcase human beings at their silliest and most sublime, and many unlikely literary figures have been drawn to their glitzy pageantry, soaring pretensions, and metaphorical potential. Unsurprisingly, writers seem liberated by imagining a spectacle where no comparison ever seems inflated, no development impossible. For better and for worse, Gruen has fallen under the spell. With a showman's expert timing, she saves a terrific revelation for the final pages, transforming a glimpse of Americana into an enchanting escapist fairy tale.

Black-and-white photographs of real American circus scenes from the first half of the century are interspersed throughout the novel, and they brilliantly evoke the dignified power contained in the quieter moments of this unusual brotherhood. The grainy photos capture the unexpected daintiness of an elephant disembarking from a train, the symmetry of a marching band, a gaggle of plumed showgirls stepping gingerly across a patchy lawn, and the haunting solitude of an impeccably dressed cook, allowing for a very real image to form in your mind.

Water for Elephants was poignant, superbly plotted, and utterly transporting. It is that rare novel with a story so engrossing, one is reluctant to put it down; with characters so engaging, they continue to live long after the last page has been turned; with a world built of wonder, a world so real, one starts to breathe its air. I am hopelessly, unabashedly in love with this book, and my only tip for you is to simply read it. 

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