I’ve actually read two books since The Return, but I’m saving the other as I read it for the Bloggers’ Book Club and we’re yet to have our chat about it… So for now, another week, another historical novel! Water for Elephants is set in the USA in the 1930s. The story is told in a memoir style from the perspective of 93-year-old Jacob Jankowski, who is in a nursing home. A circus sets up camp across the street, and Jacob relives his time as a member of a circus when he was a young man.
This flashback style seems to be popular in historical novels, and although I wouldn’t say it’s strictly necessary, I think it adds a dimension to Jacob’s character that we wouldn’t otherwise immediately see. At the beginning of the memoirs, the young Jacob seems a little bit of a wuss, but it’s apparent from his feisty elderly alter-ego that he won’t stay that way forever!
Young Jacob is studying veterinary science at Cornell University when he receives the news that his parents have been killed in a car accident. He goes home to arrange the funeral, and finds out that his parents secretly mortgaged their house to pay for Jacob’s tuition, and that his father, a vet and Jacob’s inspiration, has been providing his services for free to customers unable to afford his fees due to the Great Depression. Left homeless and penniless, Jacob returns to Cornell to attempt his final exams, but pressure and grief hit him and he runs out of the exam hall, and keeps on running. He ends up jumping on board a passing train and finds himself part of the Benzini Brothers circus, who accept him into their troupe due to his status as an Ivy League educated (if not quite qualified) vet.
What follows is a good vs evil love story, with Jacob trying to embrace his new life despite some classic baddies – the corrupt, selfish owner and the charming but volatile equestrian director – plus the distraction of an unhappily married love interest. What makes Water for Elephants special is the setting. I’ve personally never been to a traditional circus and don’t know a huge amount about them, so it makes for an unfamiliar but fascinating stage. Sara Gruen says in an interview at the end of the novel that a lot of the individual scenes were based on real-life events (or at least, circus legends that may or may not have been true real-life events!) and the book is scattered with photographs from various real circuses, which really add to the imagery. A lot of the action takes place on board the moving circus train, which adds a sense of suspense and drama.
The fast pace meant that I was surprised to see I’d nearly reached the end, and I felt like there was potential for more. The book is advertised as having been written in only a month (for National Novel Writing Month), and it did feel ever-so-slightly rushed to me, but I am hugely impressed at the quality for having been written in such a short space of time. I also liked that both the past and present endings were both wrapped up within the actual story, because I’m starting to notice I hate epilogues – a result of Harry Potter, I think!
Anyway, I’d sum this up as a good, quick historical adventure with a nice romance that’s not too soppy or graphic. There’s some violence which can be a little hard to stomach, but the whole novel feels very authentic, despite some crazy aspects – it is about a circus, after all!