Water for Elephants: A Novel

Author: Sara Gruen
Publisher: Algonquin Books, April 2007

This book was recommended to me by a friend who said she started reading it one weekend and then couldn't put it down. After having it around my house for several months, I finally picked it up last weekend and finished in the same time period. I won't say I was as engrossed in the story as my friend was; my reason was that I had a sinus infection and couldn't sleep. Still, it was a good book to curl up with, whether ill or well.

Water for Elephants is ostensibly the story of a young man, Jacob, who in 1931 finds his world in ruins. He is a student of veterinary medicine at Cornell University. Just before he is due to sit his final exams he learns that both of his parents were killed in an automobile accident. At the reading of the will he learns that his parents had mortgaged the house in order to pay for his education and that, because his father had no other money set aside, the bank was repossessing the house and its contents. Then his girlfriend dumps him because he has no money and no prospects. When Jacob returns to school to sit his final exams, his mind goes utterly blank with the shock of the recent events and he writes nothing. He leaves the exam room, he leaves the campus, he leaves everything behind him and just walks. Eventually he walks toward some railroad tracks (because these will lead to a town), and then jumps aboard a train in the night. It turns out to be a circus train, and thus Jacob is caught up in a world unlike any he'd ever known.

The story is told in remembrance. The elder Jacob, who narrates, is in his early 90s and living in a nursing home. He is, essentially, alone: His wife is dead, his children sometimes visit. Even his children are in their 60s.

But this is not a sad story. True enough, Jacob has trials and triumphs both in the circus of the past and the nursing home of the present. Ultimately, all comes out well, and I was happy to go along with him on the ride.

This is also something of a coming-of-age tale since Jacob is only in his early 20s when he joins the circus. He is still a virgin and he has a lot to learn about people and, indeed, just holding down a job. But Jacob is an apt pupil and ultimately his adherence to his ethics are what help him to succeed.


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