Yes, this essay is supposed to be a book review of Sara Gruen’s lovely, enthralling circus story Water for Elephants. But you know me. My writing gets overwhelmed and filigreed by my obsessive urge to dive into the ocean of things that excite me to purple paisley prose.
It is a fascinating love story involving a depression-era travelling train circus, a young man who suddenly finds himself a penniless orphan days before he can complete his degree in veterinary medicine, an elephant, a beautiful horse-riding show girl and circus star, and her cruel but charming ring master husband.
I don’t think I am spoiling anything by telling you that Jacob Jankowski, the main character of the tale falls in love with both the beautiful Marlena and an apparently untrainable elephant named Rosie. And I also shouldn’t actually be ruining the ending by telling you that the murderer who ends the story is revealed in the opening pages, but is still a surprise when masterful story-teller Sara Gruen re-reveals the murder at the end. This is a plot-driven novel that completely catches you up in a doomed relationship, a complicated romance, and an artfully re-created world of depression-era train circuses that ranks right up there with Cecil B. DeMille’s movie spectacular The Greatest Show on Earth.
Yes, I had to equate this book with an old 1950’s movie that I love because of the similarities of plot and spectacle. Both the movie and the book have a faithful clown friend who lives a tragic life. Both Buttons the clown, played by Jimmy Stewart in the movie, and Kinko the clown, the dwarf Walter in the book whose only friend is Queenie the dog before he gets involved in the main character’s problems, play a crucial role as a supporting character. There is a romantic triangle in each. Jacob, Marlena, and Marlena’s husband August in the book mirror the complex relationship between the circus runner Brad Braden, his girlfriend the trapeze star, Holly, and the circus’s newest trapeze star, the Great Sebastian in the movie. And in each story there is a huge disaster that threatens the existence of the circus. But I am in no way suggesting that one is merely a copy of the other. Each story is unique and enthralling in a thousand different ways. They are two entirely different stories told by two different master story-tellers that happen to be built on the same basic framework. And both of those things teach you a great wealth of carefully researched details about the magical world of real travelling circuses.
Oh, yes… And I forgot to mention, the book Water for Elephants was made into a movie in 2011.