My reaction is complex. There are two simultaneously-told stories: one about a young man beset by misfortune and good luck; one about a 90 or 93-year-old nursing home patient who is similarly the beneficiary of good health and disability. The stories are about the same man.
The story about the young man is set in a second-rate traveling circus during the depression. The story about his old age is set in the present. I liked most of the contemporary story better than the 70-year-old story. But there wasn't as much of the present-day story in the book.
The old circus story was more interesting and filled with arcane details about old circus culture. I wish there had been more about the old man and the nursing home culture he lived in.
Both stories are romantic, even though they contain nasty elements of gritty reality. Jankowski, the central character and narrator, is rescued several times throughout the stories. It's hard to believe that anyone could be so lucky.
There is a smart elephant in the circus story. It understands Polish, but not English. The elephant has more moxie than most of the people in either story. Nearly all the people in the book are accepting and complacent, except the Jacob Jankowski.
In an "Author's Note" and an interview at the end of the book, Sara Gruen touts all the interesting research she did before writing the book. It shows in the detail she describes, but it's impossible, without seeing her research or doing your own, to know what's real and what she's made up to fill the holes in the record.
And in some ways, it seems like she's picked things she found out about old circuses and posted them along the story and built connecting roads between them.
Oh, it was interesting to read. But not fun. I'm not sure if it was enlightening about circus culture in the '30s. It wasn't enlightening about human nature to me.
Eh? Did you read it? What did you think?
Sometime I should get my friend Astrid to tell the story of Tuffi who fell out of the Schwebebahn into the River Wupper (not far from the River Neander). That story might be more interesting. (You can look it up if you're curious.)
- Water for Elephants from Sara Gruen's web site
- Elizabeth Judd's review of Water for Elephants in the New York Times
- A reading group guide from Book Reporter