Water for Elephants is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I hesitated to read it. Several friends had recommended the book, it’s a New York Times Bestseller, and it was on several great books of the year lists. I thought I’d be disappointed. It couldn’t be that good. But it was.
The story is told in alternating chapters by Jacob Jankowski as a ninety or maybe ninety-three year old (he’s lost track) and as a twenty-three year old. The young Jacob is close to graduating veterinary school at Cornell. Even though the country is in the midst of The Depression, his future is mapped out. He’ll return home and join his father’s veterinary practice. But his parents are killed in a car accident and Jacob learns they had mortgaged everything to send him to school. In desperation he hops a train, not knowing what else to do. He finds himself in a rough world of a struggling circus. It’s a world where workers are thrown off moving trains if the circus owes them too much money or thinks they aren’t worthwhile, a world where things aren’t always they first appear, and a world with strict social orders. An older man befriends him and helps him find a job caring for the circus animals.
The old Jacob is in a nursing home, hating the mushy foods and missing his deceased wife. He misses corn, and fresh fruit, and walking. He is at the mercy of the nursing staff, much like the animals he once cared for.
The young Jacob falls in love with a performer, Marlena, who is married to the animal trainer. August is at times charming, but is also abusive and violent. Jacob has to figure out his morals and his own way in this different world.
The story is played out between the action of the young Jacob and the memories of the older. The ending was happy, a circus ending. It’s a book that has stayed with me for a few days now, I’ve found myself wondering about illusions, mysteries, how life circles back and teaches the same lessons in different ways, and I’ve wondered about circus ending that aren’t always exactly what they seem.