It’s the 1930s, and Jacob Jankowski doesn’t quite run away to join a circus – he jumps a freight train and finds himself travelling with one. Flying Squadron of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth is struggling with financial problems, but since the nearly-vet Jacob has lost everything, he accepts a position as the troupe’s veterinarian. He falls in love with Marlena, a beautiful equestrian performer, whose charming but jealous husband August, superintendent of animals, becomes Jacob’s boss. When the circus acquires an elephant August doesn’t get along with, his cruel, sadistic side emerges and puts everyone in jeopardy.
Yes, I did love circus as a child. I don’t remember actually going but once (or twice?) but I enjoyed watching it on TV. I especially loved the trapeze artists, and among the animals, elephants were my very favourite.
Does that explain why I found “Water for Elephants” so captivating? Maybe; or maybe it was partly that I read it during the holidays when feeling particularly lazy. Reading was all I really wanted to do.
I found the setting fascinating – the 1930’s, a circus, the vagabond life. Creating the dazzling beauty and magic of a short circus act is a lot of sweat and pain and hard work, and the everyday life of performers and workers could be quite harsh.
As for characters, I especially liked the fact that there is a marked contrast and yet certain similarities between the tender-hearted but naïve young Jacob who joins the circus and the old, grumpy Jacob who looks back on his life while in a nursing home. It is Jacob the elder who provides a certain gravity, wisdom and even some heart-break to the story – and some of its funniest moments. Rosie, the elephant, is a lovable character (some of her antics are based on true stories), and I also really liked Walter. Unfortunately, some characters remain a little flat, and I could have hoped for a bit more chemistry between Jacob and Marlena.
The writing is solid, if not extraordinary, and the story... there is love, there is excitement, there is murder and mayhem. I wanted to know what happens next! Not every plot twist and turn seemed entirely realistic (but hey, this is fiction!), and the ending especially could be called a little far-fetched. Yet I would say it was the right ending for this story.
Maybe sometimes we don’t need to know exactly what it is that draws us into a book. I just know I didn’t want to put this one down... and that is always a wonderful feeling.