Being on a 2-hour flight isn't so bad, but waiting for a connecting flight for over 3 hours can be a bit much. After attending a science conference on the east coast, I didn't have much to do besides sleep on the plane or read more geek data. Declining both of those options, I decided to hit the airport bookstore and Water for Elephants immediately caught my eye. This book had been out since 2006, but since it's been made into a movie it's republished with the current actors (Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson) on the front cover, piquing my curiosity. Besides, I always like to read the book before seeing the movie.
Plot: Jacob Jankowski is in his final year of veterinary medicine at Cornell. Right before his qualifying exams, however, comes shocking news - his parents have died in an accident, leaving some serious debt behind in Depression-era 1931. Jacob has lost everything in one day, and naturally, runs away. Lost and overwhelmed with grief, Jacob comes upon train tracks. Before he knows it, he's hopped a train. Little does he realize that the train is carrying animals, tents, and circus workers - all belonging to the Benzini Brothers Most Fabulous Show on Earth.
Well, why not?
Jacob manages to (somewhat unintentionally) join the circus, convincing the manager that he can look over the animals (he was an exam shy of getting his D.V.M., after all). Meanwhile, he befriends a few of the crew members and meets the equestrian director, August. August is charming and friendly, as is his beautiful wife, Marlena, who is a show-stopper every time with her lovely Arabian horse act. As Jacob gets to know the pair even more, he starts to realize that beneath the surface of their happy marriage, there may be something wrong - August breaks out into sporadic fits of erratic behavior, bordering paranoid jealousy and rage - and even worse, Jacob finds himself falling in love with Marlena...
Soon, a new member named Rosie joins the Benzini Brothers - and Rosie's an elephant. As Jacob tends to Rosie, he begins to understand the bond between animals and humans, thus his calling to become a veterinarian. He knows that amidst the frenzied, fast-paced circus life, he is the only one that can protect them from their cruel owners...
Mmkay. I can't think of a good way to describe what I thought of the book, except a shrug of the shoulders and "Umm...I don't know..." I mean, it has its high points and it has its low points. I purchased this book because I thought it was a romance novel (and I normally go for romance because it's just what I prefer - the untrashy kind, anyway) and in the end, it most certainly is not. There are aspects of romance, and I think the movie will try to push it as a romance, but it's really about life as a circus worker in the 1930's, animal cruelty as it was back in the day, and even cruelty towards humans when money is involved. Throw in a little paranoid schizophrenia into the mix, and hey, you've got a pretty strange novel.
The author, Sara Gruen, does a very good job engaging the reader and bringing the characters (as well as the animals) to life, so it is not a dull story by any means. The time on the plane went by pretty fast because I spent practically all of it reading this book. I didn't want to put it down because of the unending resolutions throughout the story, so again, she did a great job with that. Gruen also goes back and forth from old Jacob to young Jacob, so this is told through his point of view as an aging man, which transitioned nicely and kept it interesting. The only thing I didn't like was at the beginning of the book, where the author tries to "Tarantino" it; she has a snippet of the ending in the very first chapter, then we're brought to the beginning of Jacob's life at Cornell. Normally, I like this style, because it hooks me into reading more - but in this case, the method ended up falling flat because she essentially gives the ending away. I don't really know why she did that, because I knew what was going to happen even as I read the book.
Overall: Four stars because it was an engaging read, but it wasn't mind-blowing. I guess I would recommend this to someone who might be interested, but other than that, it was just something to pass the time. Not for people who can't take animal cruelty.
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