When Jacob Jankowski, recently orphaned and suddenly adrift, jumps onto a passing train, he enters a world of freaks, grifters, and misfits the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth a second-rate travelling circus struggling to survive during the Great Depression, making one-night stands in town after endless town. Jacob, a veterinary student who almost earned his degree, is put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie, and it is there that he meets Marlena, the beautiful young star of the equestrian act, who is married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. He also meets Rosie, an elephant who seems untrainable until he discovers a way to reach her.
Water for Elephants is hands down the best book I've read all year if not for longer. It's amazingly well written and it was so captivating I couldn't put it down.
The book tells two tales - the past and the present. Old man Jankowski is bitterly stuck in an old folks' home reminiscing his past - and what a past! Giving the reader a very detailed insight to circus life in America under the depression it shows just how brutal humans can be to both each other and to animals. But it also shows the goodness and kindness that prevails in some and those made it all worth it. And while obviously circus life plays a huge part of this book, so does the simple subject of aging and how we treat our elders. Jacob's frustration of being old and slow and treated like he's senile hit me hard. I forced my mother to read the book too (she gave it 4 stars, finding the ending a bit too forced), she works in Elder Care and she thought it was quite a reminder on how to see the elders and remember that they have a past and weren't always just a slow frail thing in a rocking chair.
Jacob is such a lovable character, both young and old and I adored Rosie. I'm a bit on the fence about Marlena and the romance; basically I just didn't really feel the appeal but accept that they just have a connection, off the same age, on the same wavelength etc. August scared me so so much, he's just such a perfectly written twisted horrible man, and Uncle Al isn't really far behind. The multitudes of smaller characters worked seamlessly with the story and the main characters, their stories telling us about the hardship of life back then, while the main characters mainly just focus on the Jacob's story.
The back cover summary pretty much says all that needs to be said about the story, the rest you must discover as you read it - and in my honest opinion it's well worth the read.
Review by Iben Jakobsen, BoB, 2012
** On another note I also saw the film and though the first half was pretty good, especially visually, despite them cutting some things and mashing together some characters, the second half was just plain bad and it really lost a lot of the story's value for me.