Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2006, 331 pp
I am probably the only person in the world who did not find this book to be completely wonderful. I received it as a Christmas present last year from a relative who told me it was her favorite book of the year. It stayed on the hardback and paperback bestseller lists forever and three out of the four reading groups of which I am a member chose this book. With all of that build-up, I was underwhelmed. (I also was not wowed by The Memory Keeper's Daughter.) It was the writing that was the problem.
It is a good story about a young man who loses his parents just as he is about to graduate from Veterinary College at Cornell University. It is 1931 and the practice which Jacob Jankowski was to inherit is bankrupt. So Jacob runs off and joins the circus.
The story alternates between the 98 or so year old Jacob living in an assisted living home and the 21 year old Jacob, who is vet to the Benzini Brothers circus. The old Jacob is looking back and telling his coming-of-age tale. Jacob, the old man, is a wonderful character and the author gets the voice of this cantankerous senior just right. The younger Jacob is not so convincing and therein lay my disappointment, since that is the bulk of the story. Whenever the younger Jacob takes over the story, I just couldn't believe him as a character.
It is true that the story carries you along. The author did her research on circus life in the 1930s and several of the circus characters are well formed and sympathetic. There are two dastardly villains, a lovely heroine and best of all the characters is Rosie the elephant, who literally saves the day. Rosie is worth the whole book. An improbable happy ending wraps it up nicely and every one in every reading group agreed that is could have ended no other way.