Book Review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

I’ve been reading like crazy on the way in to work over the last couple of weeks. Most recently, I finished Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen, which was a great story.

Basically, the book starts in present time and we meet Jacob Jankowski as an old man, living in an assisted living facility. His mind has started to fade, it seems, and he often flashes back to a series of events that started in his last week of college. Jacob had been studying to become a vet, but his parents are killed in an accident, and he heads home unexpectedly. Unable to focus or concentrate, he winds up running out of his finals, and unexpectedly finds his way to the circus.

The author does a really amazing job of telling the story from Jacob’s point of view. As a newcomer to the circus, he’s quickly introduced to new lingo, new rules, and a new hierarchy of workers and performers. Jacob becomes the circus vet, caring for many animals, ranging from dogs to a great elephant named Rosie.

The story moves along, and we learn that in present day, a circus has pulled in to town, next door to the facility that Jacob lives in. His family has agreed to take him to see the show, and Jacob is excited to go.

We continue to flash back to Jacob’s youth, and learn how he falls in love, how he begins to form bonds with other circus folks, and how he has a special friendship with Rosie the elephant.

I’ll leave my review of the story there, because the ending is great, and I think it should be a surprise. I was really pleased with how the author chose to end the book.

I know I was really moved by the character of Jacob the old man. It’s hard to read about older people who are living in assisted living, waiting for family to visit, and passing their days slowly. Jacob gets frustrated by things he used to enjoy, but no longer gets to eat, like crisp apples. The facility had taken to providing soft fruits for the residents.

I found myself saddened by Jacob’s situation as an old man, and I really thought a lot about how we treat our elders in society now. In other generations, we would have taken older family members into our homes, and cared for them. Relationships amongst grandparents, grandchildren, children and maybe even great grandchildren would have been normal, a part of every day life. Instead, Jacob found that he had little to speak to his grandkids about because he did not know them well. Visitations were limited to a day at a time, once or twice a year. I was glad that Gruen addressed these topics. The ending is quite uplifting, so I encourage you all to give it a read.