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Almost immediately becoming a No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list after its publication in mid-2006, the novel “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen captivated readers for its lively depiction of circus life during the Great Depression.
The novel, narrated by the aging but still lively Jacob Jankowski who cannot recall whether he is ninety or ninety three, consists of him reminiscing about when he dropped out of Cornell – where he was studying to become a veterinarian – during a final exam and jumped on a circus train, while having to live to his current monotonous reality of powerlessness at a nursing home.
The circus train he ended up jumping on belonged to the fictional “Benzini Brothers’ Most Spectacular Show on Earth”. Although initially unwelcome by the owner of the circus Uncle Al, he is hired to become the circus veterinarian because in order to compete with the best circus of the time – The Ringling Bros. – they must have a veterinarian also.
At the circus, he becomes mesmerized with the beautiful performer Marlena, but soon learns about the darker side of the circus as he is exposed to the hierarchal segregation of workers and performers, with the performers claiming superiority; the practice of redlighting in which workers that the circus cannot pay are thrown to their deaths off of the moving train; and the unpredictable August, Marlena’s husband, who can be perfectly charming one second, but violent to the animals and people around him the next.
Through the eyes of Jacob, Gruen vividly illustrates not only circus life down to the spectacular circus acts and performers, but the struggles society faced and the desperation for jobs and money to survive the Great Depression. Gruen offers adventure, heartbreak, romance, and suspense in this page-turning novel that will have readers hooked from beginning to end.
The novel has gained such popularity since its publication that Fox 2000 Pictures and Flashpoint Entertainment have collaborated to produce the film version of the novel for release in 2011 with prominent actors such as Robert Pattinson playing the role of Jacob, and Academy Award winners Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz playing the roles of Marlena and August, respectively.
So if you’re looking for a riveting read this summer, pick up “Water for Elephants” and prepare yourself for Gruen’s colorful and riveting tale with countless twists that are difficult to beat.
Published: July 15, 2010 – Volume 9 – Issue 13