Monday, May 21, 2007

Water For Elephants

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen
$8.37 at Amazon.com
ISBN: 1565125606
I've had my eye on this book for a while, but finally read it this week and what a rewarding experience it turned out to be! Gruen clearly did a lot of research preparing to write this novel, and paints a very vivid and meaningful picture of her setting, as well as a cast of fascinating and off-beat characters. Here's a great choice if you're looking for a fun, fast-paced story in a queer environment.
It's set in a circus in the 1930s. Our hero, Jacob, is 23 and about to take his final exam to become a veterinarian when his parents are killed in a car crash. After the funeral he discovers his family was deep in debt: his house and everything his family owned is seized by the bank as was so common in those days. With his family dead and his home taken away, there seems to be little point in staying in his small town or even finishing his schooling. He jumps onto the first train he can find, which turns out to belong to the Benzini Brothers travelling circus. Upon discovering Jacob's background as a veterinarian, he's hired by the ciurcus to tend to its menagerie of elephants, tigers, and other exotic animals.
There's a love story in here, too. Jacob falls in love with Marlena, the beautiful wife of the circus' volatile ringmaster. Their adultery gives us some romance and intrigue, which is nice, but it doesn't consume the entire plot: Water For Elephants is not a romance novel. Jacob's connection with some of the animals is fascinating in its own way, and the harsh realities of living with the circus in the 30s come to the fore as well. Al, the ringmaster, has the habit of red-lighting some of his employees: throwing them off the train in the middle of the night to avoid paying them. Rough crowd.
Contrasting this are scenes of Jacob as a 90-something old man in a nursing home, where nurses help him into a shower safety seat or wheel him to mushy meals in the home's depressing cafeteria. Strange to read about him as a studly young man and then again as a withered senior reminiscing about his life. That's what Water is really all about: making the most of one's life. Feeding 800 pound tigers on a train during the depression sounds mighty scary, but dammit, this guy lived a full and interesting life, and looks back on it with no regrets.
It's great to find a book like this: an awesome story with interesting characters, easy to get into and a page-turner until the end. Great work, Sara! This one's a must-have!

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