Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

I'm going to start this post off by covering my other news first, because there will be spoilers later on, and those of you who don't want to know how the book ends will miss the other stuff if you stop reading at the spoiler alert.
Anyway, as for the other news, it is completely badass and completely lame, all at the same time. The badass portion is the bit where I tell you that today was my first managers' meeting ever as a kind of assistant manager (I'm not sure what my position will be called yet). I feel so official, and I feel like I have a lot to contribute. I also feel so young, and that I have no idea what I'm talking about. I guess on your first day, you're supposed to feel that way.
My second piece of news, lame as it is, is that I had forty-five page views on my blog yesterday. Awesome, right? No. Most of them, I am thinking, were me, trying to figure out where most of my prior traffic came from. That's pathetic. Anyway, on to the book, even though I'm sure no one is reading this.
Water for Elephants follows the narrative of an old man and a young man simultaneously. The old man is the ninety-three year old version of the twenty-three year old Jacob Jankowski. The present Jacob is living in a nursing home, attended by nurses who don't really care what he wants, save for one nurse in particular, Rosemary. He is visited every Sunday by some member of his extended family, and the week before the next visitor, a circus sets up within view of the nursing home. This causes a flood of memories for Jacob, memories of his own circus days, working in a traveling circus as a veterinarian. He was in charge of a large menagerie of animals.
I admire the way the book was written, interlacing the past storyline with the present. The author plainly spends more time constructing the more elaborate past, making it the focal point for the majority of the book, but it becomes clear that the present storyline is integral to the book. This is not just a story of the exploits of a young man in the circus, nor is it the empty ramblings of an old man. This a story that explores the fate of those who truly live their lives to the fullest, and perhaps a warning to current society about how we should treat our elderly.
Jacob begins his reminiscing with his parents deaths in a car accident, and his imminent jumping of a train. This train happens to be the Benzini Brothers' Most Amazing Show on Earth. What Jacob comes to learn and reveal, is the seedy underbelly of what circus life was in the old days. Witnessing acts of animal cruelty to a much beloved elephant, redlightings (the removal of staff from the moving train, sometimes over train trestles), the refusal to pay a month's wages to half of the staff when times are tough, and ultimately the beating of a lovely wife and performer.
As Jacob learns the ropes to the circus business, whose toes it's okay to tread on, and whose toes he should stay away from, he falls in love with the very person he should stay away from: the wife of the superintendent of the menagerie, Marlena. Marlena's husband, August, is a very jealous man, who is paranoid schizophrenic, imagines the affair between Jacob and Marlena, resulting in beatings of the circus elephant, as well as his wife. Jacob and Marlena plan to run away together when Jacob's life is threatened by the ringmaster and August. However, when the men who got redlighted over a trestle in place of Jacob and managed to survive catch up with the circus at the next town, all hell breaks loose. They release the animals, causing the stampede that was considered the third biggest circus disaster in circus history. During said stampede, two murders occur: that of August, who is killed by the elephant driving a stake through his head, and that of the horrific ringmaster, who was hung by the men he tried to kill, both murders a sort of revenge. Jacob, witnessing the murder of August, keeps the elephant's secret for years and years. He and Marlena, having an elephant and eleven horses, having nowhere to go after the Benzini Bros. circus falls apart, join up with the Ringling Bros. circus, and eventually settle down, donating the elephant to the zoo where Jacob takes a job as a vet.
In the present, Jacob is disgruntled because no one will listen to his wishes, when it comes to taking his medicine, or even opening the blinds. One single nurse treats him with respect. This principle applies to Jacob's family as well. They come, bearing news of no real importance. Jacob catches important information by eavesdropping, and none of his visitors come often enough for him to remember who they are, save for his children. For them, it is a chore to sit with him, and every family member is eager to leave at the end of visiting time.
On the visit that was supposed to happen during the circus weekend, Jacob's son forgets about visiting him. No one was able to come and visit, and Jacob has been left behind. Not to be deterred by one city block, some wobbly legs, and no one to accompany him, as he's just been told he's being abandoned by the only person that respects him (the nurse, Rosemary, is moving away), Jacob sets off for the circus on his own.
When he arrives at the circus, he is stopped at the gate by a teenage boy because he cannot pay. The director comes out and welcomes Jacob in when Jacob tells him he used to work for the circus. The director is even more delighted when he finds that Jacob was present for the Benzini Bros. circus disaster of 1931, and invites Jacob back to his trailer when the show is finished. Jacob tells all. Even the elephant's secret, that he kept for so many years. And the director listens. Respectfully. The cycle comes full circle when the police show up looking for Jacob. The director lies, telling them that Jacob is his father, and agrees to take him on in the circus as a ticket seller. Jacob has a new family, as the ringmaster of the Benzini Bros. called them, he's back in business doing what he loves, and he has a family member who likes to listen to his stories. Jacob, a man who embodies Carpe Diem, is finally respected and heard.
I loved everything about this book. I love the way the story was told. I loved the dual storylines. I love the way the book ended. I loved the symbolism. I loved it all. Prior to this book, my favorite novels were the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde, but I think that this book has blown those novels out of the water and now sits in the slot of my favorite book of all time. Props to Ms. Gruen for writing a brilliant novel.