The novel is advertised as a bestseller, has won several awards, and has been made into a movie with Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon, and yet, somehow, none of us in the group had ever heard of "Water for Elephants", nor of Sara Gruen. It was a very pleasant discovery to read her book about Jacob Jankowski, a Polish-American vet in 1930's Great Depression - era USA, who loses his parents to a car accident just as he is about to sit his veterinary exams at Cornell University, and in his despair (and his money-lessness) jumps on a random train at night, which turns out to be a travelling circus. Here he establishes himself as a capable working hand and animal handler as well as a vet, falls in love with Marlena, the star of the horseshow, makes unlikely friends among the "roustabouts", circus performers, and most notably becomes the only friend of the circus's new attraction, a seemingly stubborn Elephant dame named Rosie, who everybody assumes is untrainable and dumb, until Jankowski discovers that she will listen to his commands if he says them to her in Polish.
All of this rousing, moving, nicely paced circus lore, based on Sara Gruen's research of the big and small travelling circus's of the era, is satisfyingly told from the perspective of present-day Jankowski, now 93 years old and holed up in a nursing home, where the patronising manner of the staff and the mental absence of many of its inmates drive him absolutely crazy, until a lovely and humane nurse, Rosemary, starts to actually listen to him and respect him. The story is thus told in a two-level way that worked very well, we all thought; it's nice to get his perspective as a 90 or 93-year-old (he can't quite remember which but points out that, actually, who cares about 3 years' difference at this stage?) as well as his experiences as a young man of falling in love with a married circus performer with an unpredictable, abusive, possibly mentally ill (definitely mentally unstable) husband August, navigating the brutality of every day life on the large scale, when he finds out about the uncompromising circus leader, Big Al, throwing people off the train at night when he can't pay them any longer ("redlighting"), and on the small scale, when he refuses to share his nursing home dinner table with a braggart who claims he carried water for elephants as a youngster in the circus. Old age Jacob has a fit at him ("You never carried any water for any elephants! Do you know how much an elephant drinks?") and Rosemary talks him back into joining the dinner table eventually, rather than eating alone. It was also nice to know from the beginning that our protagonist has a lovely long life with a wife, five children, and many grandchildren; even though these days they don't really engage with him all that much when visiting him.
When he finds out that Rosemary is leaving her job in his home, on the very day his relatives have forgotten whose turn it was to visit him and take him to the circus that has come into his town, present-day Jacob sneakily shuffles out of the home with his walker and makes it to the gates of the circus by himself. Here he eventually meets the manager, CHarlie, who invites him for a drink and listens to Jacob's recollections. Charlie ends up pretending to the police that Jacob is his father, not the runaway that the nursing home is looking for, and promises to take Jacob on to man the ticket booth, which makes for a lovely ending.
Of course the woman he ends up marrying is MArlena, star attraction, and the drama of how she battles her abusive husband, August, is the centre of the book, and very well written; we were gripped by the story, the quirky and dramatic turns alike, the characters were believable and entertaining, and we really liked finding out details of what goes on behind the scenes at a travelling circus under duress. It was interesting to find out that when one circus goes bankrupt, the animals, performers, and workers get picked up for low prices by other circusses coming to raid the leftovers; the brutality of dealing with desperate times ("redlighting", beatings, not paying the roustabouts for weeks at a time) and just the normal day to day life of a circus - having to put sick animals down, feeding lions, clubbing the men on the head that are trying to sneak underneath the striptease-tent without paying. We enjoyed the warily budding friendship between Jacob and Walter the performing dwarf who's forced to share his wagon with Jacob, and with Camel, who falls ill with Jake Leg from illegal alcohol, and most of all with Rosie the elephant, who Jacob has to save again and again from the violent outbursts of Marlena's husband. We laughed at old Jacob declaring to the reader that aging is definitely not for sissies. If there was one complaint, we thought that maybe Marlena didn't really possess much of a personality beyond caring for the animals; however, she had to deal with an unpredictably brutal husband, so we gave the author the benefit of the doubt of maybe sketching Marlena in a very restrained, subdued way on purpose. All in all we really enjoyed the ride.