In these hot, humid, dog days of summer, reading shouldn't be too taxing. That's not to say that it shouldn't have substance. Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants straddles the line beautifully. It's a compelling story full of memorable characters that doesn't lose momentum or pander to the reader.
Water for Elephants opens at the end of the story, introducing us to the protagonist (Jacob) when he is a young man who joins the circus when circumstances rip his planned path from him. The present of the story is the protagonist as an old man ("Ninety or ninety-three"), slowly losing his mind and living in an assisted living facility. The sections of the book that focus on Jacob in his later years are heartbreaking. Gruen clearly did her homework and portrays Jacob's loss of independence and memory with a tender touch. She may at times veer into the sentimental, but only for a moment. This book should be required reading for anyone who works with the elderly, to remind them that the residents they so desultorily care for are actual human beings with feelings and rich histories. Luckily, Jacob has Rosemary, an aide who allows him to make decisions and retain some independence, while gently leading him toward better choices.
The real pull of the story comes when Jacob falls into memory. The story opens as a circus sets up across the street from the home. Seeing the tent reminds Jacob of the summer during the depression when he found himself working on a small-time circus as the vet. Again, Gruen has done her homework. The scenery of the time is vivid. The hungry men hoping for work, the desperate measures that must be taken to keep the show going. Sadly, the treatment of animals in the circus doesn't seem to have improved, but Jacob cares deeply for the animals. Seeing their treatment from his perspective allows Gruen to hold nothing back.
Love of animals brings Jacob close with a performer on the show, Marlena. Marlena fights for her horses and does whatever she views as right. Gruen avoids creating a one-dimensional "feisty" character by giving Marlena hard choices. Make no mistake, this is a love story, but one fraught with peril and danger. Since the reader also sees Jacob as an old man, the reader also knows that Marlena is no longer with him. Adding some mystery and suspense to the story.
This book embodies summer reading. Never boring, well written, and with loads of history (feel like you're learning something!), Water for Elephants will have you wishing you could hop a train and ride the rails, hanging around with chimps and horses. As long as you were a performer, of course. They get all the breaks!