This week I finished Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.
I love where books take me – across America on a train with a traveling circus, stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the restaurant at the end of the universe, on an investigation into the death of a neighborhood dog, and countless more.
I’ve found that the books that most surprise me most by securing a place in my heart and list of favorites are the ones that are about subjects I never thought I was interested in reading about.
A few other examples, besides the subject of this post, that come immediately to mind are Life of Pi and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
If you had asked me if I wanted to read a survival story about a young boy who escapes a shipwrecked boat only to face months stranded on a boat with a dangerous tiger (Life of Pi), I probably would have said no thanks.
But thank goodness I frequently push my expectations aside and jump into books that fall outside my main interests. That’s one of the greatest benefits (and pleasures) of reading.
What this is leading up to is that Water for Elephants is a book about a circus. (But oh so much more.) I was most certainly circus neutral before reading this book.
Sara Gruen is an incredible writer. Each character is vivid and real. Our hero, Jacob Jankowski, captures your heart in the beginning and never lets go. It’s interesting, fun to read, happy, thoughtful, moving, inspiring, and poignant, all rolled into one must read novel.
One of the things that impressed me most was how well she writes older characters. Their thoughts and feelings seem spot on. She handles all aspects of old age truthfully and with grace. How Jacob doesn’t like to look in mirrors because he doesn’t recognize himself at 90 (or 93, he can’t remember). How he doesn’t feel that he is a part of his children’s lives anymore, now that they’re old with grandchildren of their own. His troubles with his memory.
The majority of the plot, though, is flashbacks to his youthful days as a young man who finds himself with nothing to lose, and so, rather randomly, finds himself working for a traveling circus. The relationships that he develops are powerfully real – we develop them right along with Jacob.
A blurb from Joshilyn Jackson (Author of Gods in Alabama) says it better than I can: “Gorgeous, brilliant, and superbly plotted, Water for Elephants swept me into the world of the circus during the depression, and it did not let me go until the very end. I don’t think it has let me go, even now. Sara Gruen has a voice to rival John Irving’s, and I am hopelessly, unabashedly in love with this book. Read it.”
Here’s a great interview with Sara Gruen that’s fun to read after finishing the novel. (It’s also the one in the back of the paperback edition.)
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