On My Nightstand: ‘Water for Elephants’ tender and cruel
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is an eminently readable novel – it captured my attention on the very first page, and I found it hard to put down. We meet the main character, Jacob Jankowski, as a 90-year-old resident in a nursing home. He passionately hates being old and is trying to preserve his dignity and independence but his body is feeble, wrinkled and failing.
Jacob reminisces about his earlier life as chief medical person for all of the animals at the Benzini Bros. Circus – “The Greatest Show on Earth.” He dropped out of vet school before his final exam so was technically a vet student. The author gives us a varied tapestry of life behind the scenes at “The Big Top” – the greed, poverty, violence, tawdriness, friendship and caring between the circus employees.
Jacob interacts with Big Al, the scheming, egotistical cruel circus owner, the dwarf performer Walter and his dog Queenie and the debilitated alcoholic Camel he befriends and tries to protect from Big Al’s horrible temper. Then there is August, a smooth-talking smart-dressing bipolar maniac, who abuses his sweet, beautiful wife Marlena, who works with the animals in the circus ring. We meet roadies and roustabouts, freaks, the various animals in the menagerie, and Rosie, the would-be star of the show who smiles and only understands Polish. We witness the brutal treatment of Rosie by Big Al and August, who beats her unmercifully, and the kind ministrations to her by Jacob. As the romance heats up between Jacob and the married Marlena, a string of events occurs that changes the lives of everyone in the Benzini Bros. Circus.
The plot, intense characterizations, raw and powerful emotions of the circus “family” is absorbing and frightening at times. It is understandable that such an all-encompassing sweeping novel was recently made into a motion picture starring actress Reese Witherspoon, but one that I will not see due to allegations of animal, especially elephant, mistreatment. But the book is absolutely not to be missed! The ending is tender and beautiful, but a real tear-jerker.