Author Sara Gruen’s Water For Elephants is not exactly a title that makes you swoon. It sounds literary and artsy-fartsy, about something really sad like the mistreatment of animals or a drought in a third world country. But it’s way better than that—it’s actually about a guy who runs away and joins the circus during the Great Depression.
What the what? Hear me out.
The Depression Era grabs me like no other. Some people like Regency, Medieval, Georgian, or Ancient Rome; for me, it’s the Depression. The appeal for me is that it was when the power of the American spirit was tested like no other.
With all this love for a depression you’d think I’d have read a ton of fictitious tales depicting it. But I haven’t, so was stoked to find out about this one. Plus it’s also about the circus! Bonus! Schwing!
The cover art piqued my interest immediately: A man wearing a red-sequined jacket leans into that wonderful striped Big Top tent. What is he seeing? What’s going on in there? I cracked the pages and started reading on my commute home.
I. Could. Not. Stop. Reading.
First of all, it opens with an action-packed flashback to a circus stampede. I snorted out loud, on the el train, when Jacob, the main character, overhears the warning music from the Big Top and says, “There was an ungodly collision of brass, reed, and percussion—trombones and piccolos skidded into cacophony, a tuba farted, and the hollow clang of symbol wavered out of the big top.” To describe the sound a tuba makes as a fart is classic! I knew then I’d love this book. Gruen had me at fart. Flatulence is hysterical! Fart has to be the funniest dang word in the English Dictionary.
Chapter one opens with Jacob who is ninety or ninety-three, he can’t remember, sitting in a nursing home as he reflects on his youth in the circus. He reaches into the far recesses of his mind to recall how he met her…
Super duper sigh. You mean I get the Great Depression, the circus, tuba farts, and now a love story? I think I love you, Sara Gruen. No, I know I do.
This pulse-pounding, comedic, heart-wrenching tale goes back and forth from 1931 to now. Jacob Jankowski recalls how he met the love of his life during the adventure of a lifetime. Gruen weaves a story of finding true love, fighting for it, and holding on to the memory of it in old age amongst the backdrop of a circus. You have the fame seeking circus owner, the psycho ring master, the beautiful and abused menagerie, dwarfs, clowns, dogs, and of course an elephant.
Jacob runs away from his Ivy League education after a family tragedy. He gets lost in the circus where he can tend to animals and leave his past behind. There, he meets the love of his life who just so happens to be married to the ring master, a bipolar manic depressive who abuses the animals, any one who dares cross him, and even his lovely wife, Marlena.
The virgin hero stays on to save her and saves himself in the process. This is all told by an elderly Jacob, who sits in a nursing home, waiting to go to the recent circus that’s come to town.
The elegant way Gruen travels back in forth in time made me feel like old Jacob was sitting next to me telling his life story. I felt him as a young man experiencing his joy, pain, and fear. Turn the page, and I was sitting with my grandmother’s generation, feeling the joy, pain, and fear of old age, your last days alone in a nursing home.
The book has photos scattered throughout from actual depression era circuses, cementing you more into Jacob’s world. A world where he follows his heart and finds true love. This is NOT a romance novel, per se, but when you break it down, it really is: You’ve got the virgin hero, the damsel in distress, and the villain who gets in their way.
You must read this book before seeing the upcoming movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson. Here is the trailer. You will need to read this book after seeing it. Be sure to have popcorn, roasted peanuts, and time to spare. You won’t be able to put it down.
Charli Mac, Aspiring Author, Mother, Wife & Part-Time Clown