I first read Water for Elephants during a period I can remember clearly. It was the summer of 2014, when I was floundering in the dark deciding what I was going to do about grad school. Caught in an ever-swirling maelstrom of expectations, uncertainty, and deadlines, the only thing I could hold firmly onto were the fictional worlds I read about. When I found a quiet moment, I snuck a chapter or two, taken completely back in time to a place I vaguely remember from some far-off childhood day: the circus.
In 1931, veterinary student Jacob Jankowski hops a train to nowhere when he learns that his parents have been killed in a car accident. Turns out that train belongs to the Benzini Bros. Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a struggling circus, and Jacob eventually gets hired as the circus vet. He makes many friends in the circus, particularly Marlena, the equestrian captain’s wife; Walter, a performing bibliophile dwarf; and Rosie, a supposedly untrainable show elephant.
The greatest thing about Water for Elephants is its ability to pull you right back through time. You just get completely sucked into the world of Depression-era America, as well as the mysterious world of the 1930s big top. You can taste the popcorn and cotton candy, smell the animals, feel the summer heat inside the tent…it feels quite real. The circus was truly an escape during that time, and it’s interesting to see behind the scenes of this branch of entertainment. You’re still spellbound by the illusion, even though you’re looking at the difficult circumstances under which these shows ran.
Inevitably, there is a love story between Jacob and Marlena. But it doesn’t come without its share of tension, particularly from Marlena’s abusive husband, August. While you do root for Jacob and Marlena individually, the love story itself is not particularly powerful. Jacob makes it very clear that he is a virgin and is a little weary of women, and I buy that. What I don’t buy is that, in the span of only a few meetings, and barely a few weeks, Jacob declares himself in love with Marlena.
I would even say that Jacob becomes just a tad annoying after he makes this declaration. Even when taking risks for that love is clearly not the best idea, Jacob continually defies his friends’ advice. I’m not harking on Jacob and Marlena themselves: they work just fine in their own way. But when the reader is not as crazy about their love as they are, it’s kind of tiring watching these characters make dumb decisions as a result.
However, the drama with August is pretty juicy. He truly comes across as a dangerous individual, and there are so few chances for Jacob and Marlena to escape him. The fact that they’re in the Great Depression, and the fact that they have so few allies within the circus, definitely doesn’t make it easier.
I should mention the framing device of this book. Jacob looks back on his time with the circus as a 90-something man in a nursing home. He has trouble remembering names, and resents the monotony of his routine. He only finds solace through a nurse named Rosemary, whose name sounds eerily similar to Rosie, the elephant Jacob befriended at the circus. It does come across as a little sentimental, and it probably would not affect the book if it were taken out. I think it’s meant to help ground the reader in a familiar time and place, but the circus was such an engaging and affective setting that this device feels unnecessary.
Nonetheless, the story is still so very engaging, and the world of the American circus is so nostalgic but at the same time so faraway. I would recommend this book less for the story and more for the near-fantastical world it takes place in. The romance is a bit of a hiccup, but it’s a minor bump in the ride this book takes you on, which is just as wild as a true American circus.