Water for Elephants (Review)

In seventy years, I never told a blessed soul

Jacob Jankowski finds his world crumbling with the death of his parents. In an effort to escape, he runs out of his veterinarian exams and jumps a train only to find himself in the midst of a traveling circus. Thanks to sheer dumb luck, the circus happens to be in need of a vet and has no qualms about hiring Jacob despite the fact that he never finished his final exams. The finest years of his life are just beginning and by the end of his first night Jacob is falling in love.

A diverse array of characters with realistic dimensions and a cast of amazing exotic animals bring prohibition-era America to life. We meet Jacob as a young man finding his way through life in the circus and come to love him as a cantankerous 90-something year old gentleman going through life in a nursing home. Sara Gruen manages to capture the hearts of readers looking for a love story of a different nature.

Perhaps I read this book at just the right time, but I loved to love it. There were so many layers to the characters and so much going on in a sort of organized chaos sort of way.

I loved how we are introduced to the ending at the beginning and then it is clarified later on, if that makes sense. The opening chapter hooked me in immediately. I loved Jacob right away and, although I haven’t seen the movie, Robert Pattison is not the image I created for Jacob, but that might just be my personal taste. I’m glad I read this book before seeing the movie, but now I hope I haven’t set my hopes up too high for when I do finally watch the film.

Regardless, I loved him. I ached when his parents died and the shockwave it sent through his life. I was left crying out “No Jacob!” when he ran out of his exams and decided to jump a train in the middle of the night. I couldn’t believe he was throwing his life away! But, it ended up being the best decision of his life and started a series of events that turned Jacob into a man.

And as an elderly man, I still loved him despite the grief he sometimes gave the nurses. I ended up siding with him on these events thinking, “Well, I don’t blame him for getting mad.” Lol.

Honestly, I enjoyed all of the characters, even the ones I loved to hate (Ahem… August). There was enough description to give me a personal image of how they looked and their mannerisms. I felt like Gruen managed to capture real individuals between the covers of this novel. And the animals! The animals are what make a circus worth seeing and she did wonderfully capturing the honesty of how circus animals were once treated.

This book had me emotional, though. I felt sad that Jacob had to be cared for in a nursing home because his children could not take care of him themselves. I loved the nurse, Rosemary, but ached when Jacob started to think he was becoming senile. And without giving the story away, I cringed at August and Marlena’s relationship. I was sad/mad when one of my favorite characters died and had to close the book for a moment to recuperate. The day the circus arrives next door to the nursing home, I cried. Real, ugly and uninhibited tears.

I learned how to cuss in Polish, appreciate the work that once went into travelling circuses and love the kindness of the most unexpected strangers. This story is more than just the love between a woman and a man, it is about the love for life. Jacob loves these animals so much that he refuses to leave them under, despite the horrible circumstances he finds himself in and the love for the circus is what brings excitement back into his life at 90-something years old. Love is about more than just the feeling you get when you see someone and this novel shows how love is a part of our lives in the most unexpected sort of ways.

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