I must tell everyone that I am really loving my new Kindle, even though it’s the Android version and it’s a real pity that some of the books cost as much as actual bound and printed matter (Fluffy is a serious cheapskate), and am just as happy that the first (relatively reasonably priced at $5.00) book I chose to purchase for it, Sara Gruen’s Water For Elephants, is certified as Teh Awesome (misspelling intentional, I just get a kick out of seeing Teh WordPress give me red squiggly lines as I write). I know it’s been out for a WHILE, but I just got around to reading it. I am a sucker for a good circus story (Gary Jennings’s Spangle is one of the few books I can actually reread), and this one doesn’t disappoint.
The story centers on Jacob Jankowski, a Cornell veterinary student during the Great Depression. His parents are killed in a car crash, leaving Jacob bereft and destitute. Consumed by his loss, Jacob walks out of his final exams and just keeps walking, until, exhausted, lost, and completely at loose ends, he jumps a train which turns out to belong to the Benzini Brothers’ Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a circus of somewhat less-than-spectacular means and with a possible use for an almost-veterinarian. Jacob is quickly taken under the wing of the elderly, alcoholic ticket-seller, Camel, who persuades the general manager (ringmaster), a shady character known only as Uncle Al, to hire the penniless young man as a caretaker for the menagerie. Jacob proceeds to meet a colorful, well-drawn cast of characters: his bunkmate, Walter, aka Kinko the Clown, a dwarf whose hotheaded disposition hides a generous heart; August Rosenbluth, the sinister, violent master of horse; and August’s wife, Marlena, a beautiful equestrienne who has resigned herself to a loveless marriage due to the lack of any other option. Jacob’s first four-legged patient is Marlena’s favorite horse, Silver Star, whom he is sadly unable to save, but during the course of the horse’s illness he gets to know Marlena and her husband, developing a respect for the girl and a deepening distrust for August. His distrust is proven well-founded when the show acquires an elephant, Rosie, whom August abuses severely. At the same time, Jacob’s feelings for Marlena have turned to something more than friendship, and his desire to protect both Marlena and Rosie from the increasingly unhinged August drives the tale forward.
The story is framed within Jacob’s recollections as an old man of ninety (or ninety-three, he cannot remember which), as he deals with the loss of faculties that come with advanced age and the seeming disregard of his family, who rarely come to visit him at the rest home where he resides. The book opens with his memory of a murder, and the happenstances of that killing are where his story comes full circle– with a surprise, for which I will give NO spoilers. The ending is a surprise as well, and one that will leave the reader with a smile as the final page is turned.
The movie version comes out in April, and I will DEFINITELY be seeing it. The casting seems spot-on: Robert Pattinson of Twilight fame portrays Jacob and I think he will absolutely nail it if he can keep his British accent from creeping up (Jacob is a second-generation Polish-American). Reese Witherspoon is Marlena, and has the both the necessary steel and vulnerability to pull it off. (Scuttlebutt at IMDB reveals that Scarlett Johannson turned the role down, which in Fluffy’s opinion is a good thing. She comes off TOO tough for the part.) Uncle Al and August have been given the composite character treatment in the form of Christoph Waltz, who can play disturbingly creepy quite well, and veteran actor Hal Holbrook will portray the older Jacob. If there’s anything I’m a bigger sucker for than a good circus book, it’s a good circus movie, and I hope this one will deliver on the promise its excellent cast and amazing source make for it.