Monday, September 20, 2010

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

'Sakhi' Book Club Oct. 2010 Pick

In her book, Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen takes us back to a bygone era for a fascinating look into a Depression Era circus. The experience is akin to being taken on a magic carpet ride into a world of frenetic energy. She manages to capture both the gaudy glamor and the sleaze beneath the sequins, in her portrayal of the hard scrabble existence of its performers and workers.

 But that’s only one side of the story. There are two plots here, and one could almost say two heroes, because the elderly Jacob Jankowski, remembering his vanished youth at the Benzini Brothers Circus is nothing at all like his younger self. The younger Jacob, losing his parents and his prospective career in one tragic stroke, abandons his final exam at Cornell, only to stumble into a circus. He manages to secure a place for himself there once his veterinary training is discovered. To the cash-strapped Benzini Brothers’ Circus, a near-vet is better than none at all. At the circus, Jacob discovers love, enemies, and friends in the unlikeliest places.

As he continues his reminiscences, the elderly Jacob is eagerly waiting for someone (heck, anyone, he doesn’t care) to take him to the circus that has parked itself near the Retirement Home. The older Jacob is crusty, feisty, alone, terrified of old age and death, and yet indomitable. The author’s depiction of the Assisted Living Center is poignant in its minutiae of daily life.

It takes grace and wisdom to surrender to the inevitabilities of life. Yet perhaps, there is also something heroic about those who stubbornly refuse to “go gentle into that good night” and believe that,

“Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Ninety-three year old Jacob Jankowski will haunt my memory long after I forget the other details of this story.

There are some loose ends to the plot, and the writer initially sets us up for a climax, only to pull a surprising (and implausible) switcheroo, in an act of authorly legerdemain. However, it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable read that manages to effortlessly transport from one vividly imagined setting to another.

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