An Ordinary World

books, blabberings, and a life semi-common

A Journey of Memories

In Sara Gruen’s WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, a young man about to finish another year of school is given news of tragedy and flees from all he’s known. Jacob Jankowski ends up on a train for the Benzini Brothers circus and begins a journey of a lifetime.

The opening of the novel, as well as interludes throughout the story of a 21-year-old man, is set in a nursing home where Jacob is ninety… or ninety-three… and is hit with memories of his time with the animals, the people, and the atmosphere of a circus during the Great Depression. Gruen takes readers on the journey with Jacob – one that takes no prisoners and forces cruelty, both toward animals and toward humans, into the reader’s mind.

I picked up this book because of the movie releasing in 2011. As a fan of Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon, I did some research and learned the film would be based on a book. As with most books-to-film, I wanted to read the story before seeing it.

And what a wonderful find this was.

Gruen manages to show a previously unknown world (to me, of course) in such vivid detail that I often felt like I was right there next to Jacob – learning with him, hurting with him, and feeling anger with him. The research is obvious in every facet of the story, whether it’s the price of tickets, the handling of animals, or the mannerisms and reactions of one set of people to another.

In addition to that, Gruen also creates characters that are interesting and intriguing. There isn’t a single character that is there “just because” or is just a name for the reader to forget. Rather, each character is there for a reason and are memorable for whatever reason, good or bad. Though this is Jacob’s story, the people and animals who surround him are just as important in the storytelling.

Though lauded sometimes as a “summer read,” I believe WATER FOR ELEPHANTS to be more than that. In my mind, a “summer read” is a novel that is frivolous and can be read almost mindlessly, without though, while I sit by a pool and care more about not getting burned by the sun than the book I’m reading. WATER FOR ELEPHANTS made me sit up and take notice of everything – plot, characters, setting, emotions, dialogue. Had I skipped over anything, I would have felt a sense of loss for not truly understanding the depth of emotion and creativity the book offers.

While the main character is 21, this is one of the most moving coming-of-age stories I’ve had the pleasure of reading. From 21 to 90… or 93… Jacob is the person who proves hard work, determination, and loving others can help catapult anyone into a life worth living.


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