Having grown up in a time period where there's so much entertainment available at the press of a button, I never had in my life ventured to the circus. At age 25, I had my first encounter as I read Sara Gruen's novel Water for Elephants. Just as a good circus performance is supposed to stick with the patron long after the final act and the curtain is drawn, Gruen's book also continues to impress me long after I turned the last page and closed the cover.
Water for Elephants is not merely a story about the circus; it's a hard-driving, intensely luring tale of aging and the acts we call living and dying. Jacob Jankowski narrates his life story as a 90-something-year-old man whose children had insisted he live in assisted-living center. Though Jacob's body has aged, the reader finds his mind still very agile. As Jacob describes old age and how his family and the assisted-living staff treat him as though he is frail and decrepit, I found myself sympathising with him while simultaneously vowing to never treat any of my elders in a way that would suggest they don't have the same capacity to feel and think in the same ways as those of us who are younger. We learn about Jacob's story and how he flippantly becomes part of a circus during the Great Depression when a present-day circus begins to set up its show across the parking lot from the assisted-living center in which Jacob is living. We retreat into Jacob's memories of his life as a young man and then drift back into reality with him several times throughout the book.
Jacob's journey with the raw, unedited circus begins when he is a young man who is just a few final exams away from becoming veterinarian touting an Ivy League degree. Jacob, innocent and sheltered from many of life's hardships, finds himself completely lost in grief and abandonment after his parents abruptly die in a car crash. Instead of moving forward with his college plans, Jacob walks out of his final exams and walks to the edge of town where he jumps a train and takes a ride that alters his worldview from black and white to one of vibrant colors that profoundly stain his life. Upon hopping the circus train, Jacob meets and introduces us to myriad unique characters, some of whom completely disgust and enrage the reader and others who beg our affection. Jacob, by far, is the most developed character in the story; many of the other major players are somewhat neglected, and we are only given brief snapshots of scenes that showcase their personalities. I suppose this is the way life unfolds in reality, but, regardless, I wanted more. The beautiful Marlena, who is Jacob's love interest, is likable, yet she is a very flat character in many ways insofar as she reacts and acts exactly as we expect her to act; she's the stereotypical damsel in distress. Nonetheless, I liked her, and I felt like their connection was genuine -- I just wanted to like her abundantly more as she was much of the reason Jacob stayed with the circus and witnessed so much misery. The same goes for a few of the other characters, both minor and major alike: they assume the roles we expect them to fill in order to drive the story into a climatic whirlwind that dramatically alters each life.
What some of the human characters lack in terms of development, the animal characters make up for. Rosie, the stubborn elephant and prematurely labeled savior for the show, shines as a round, thoughtful character. Gruen beautifully describes the bull's body language and expressions helping us to understand why Jacob felt such a connection with her. It's because of Rosie and the other animals that the audience really comes to like the younger Jacob and see him as more than a lost soul; the animals well a wealth of compassion from Jacob's aching heart. The reader really connects with the younger Jacob because of his love for the creatures on the show both human and animal while we more empathize with the older Jacob because of his situation.
Of course, I could groan about the deep anger that was provoked by Jacob's uncaring, naive, insensitive grown children, but their neglect served its purpose: it made me better understand Jacob and gave him more depth as a character. I also could carry on about the parallelisms from the Biblical Jacob and Jacob in the story as well as various other literary devices, but these elements are not the grounding forces that make this novel extremely important; though I'm still pondering the book's title, questioning the character development and analyzing the embedded symbolism, I'm more so enraptured with the beauty of the humanity and compassion displayed by Jacob and a few of the others during the darkest and dreariest moments of human life. I'm more impressed by the deftly crafted tale of living and ageing, forgetting and remembering and loving and cherising. I remain undoubtedly impressed by my first encounter with the circus.