By Beth M. Wood
It isn’t often that a story wraps you up so completely you forget you’re reading a story at all. The characters in Sara Gruen’s “Water for Elephants” are disheveled, hopeless, beguiling, haunting, and hopeful all at once. And one larger than life heroin brings them all together in a gritty, captivating world full of living, breathing characters that ring true to life.
Jacob Jankowski sits in a nursing home, lamenting his aging body and mind. He is treated like a child, and because of this begins to act like one. He resents the way he’s coddled and the way his family comes to see him “like clockwork, every Sunday.” From the rice pudding to the canned gravy, his life has become one of painful regularity. He describes old age as a terrible thief who “muddies your head and silently spreads cancer throughout your spouse.” His one saving grace is his nurse, Rosemary, who he describes with the sentiment, “I’m no longer sure how to react when someone treats me like a real person.”
When the circus pulls into town, all the nursing home’s residents have something to talk about and look forward to. And Jacob’s memories are dusted off and brought to life. We are thrust into the world of a circus where we know a murder takes place and a girl is involved. And as the story unfolds we cheer for Jacob, breathe when he breathes, hurt when he hurts.
Gruen has the spectacular talent of relaying the strongest of emotions in perfect, simple language. She tells of Jacob receiving devastating news with “I’m aware of a heavy, wet noise, and realize it’s me. I’m gasping for breath.” (And the reader can’t help but think “yes! That’s it exactly!”)
The story begins with Jacob remembering the most pivotal point in his life, set in the 1930’s Great Depression era and within the world of a circus. And then we are propelled forward into Jacob’s current life – a ninety-something old man in a nursing home filled with memories that both haunt him and keep him alive. The story switches from Jacob’s memories to Jacob in the nursing home and as his memories become clouded, so do these transitions.
Sara Gruen’s “Water for Elephants” is filled with simple language and powerful themes.
We can smell the grittiness of the characters, touch the roughness of them, feel the love, hate, horror, sadness and hope in their hearts. It is a story pregnant with illusion from the title itself to circus life, marriage, money and family loyalty. August describes it well when he tells Jacob, “The whole thing’s an illusion…and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s what people want from us. It’s what they expect.”
Jacob’s life is set out before him as he prepares to sit his college exams. It is an illusion that screeches to a halt and sets in motion the events of his true life as it was meant to be lived. And as they pull into each town and set up, from the Big Top to the Fat Lady and the Tattooed man, each community buys into the illusions of the circus.
Gruen’s characters come to life and each has a true purpose in the story. Uncle Al and August bring hardship and pain, Walter and Camel represent the truest of friendships and Marlena and Rosie evoke a love that transcends time and place. And all of them, including Charlie, who we don’t meet until the story’s end, represent family – the best and worst of them all. Gruen makes no attempt to force her characters into any given situation or bring them to buttoned-up solutions. As in life, things happen as only they must. Gruen does not tell us all of this, but shows us in the way that only a seasoned and very talented writer can. To let us know that Kinko and Jacob’s relationship has changed, she gives us only, “Jacob? You can call me Walter if you want.” But it is powerful in its simplicity.
This story has it all – murder, sex, jealousy, hatred, joy, deceit and love. One of my college writing instructors once described the best story as one that puts the protagonist in a tree, throws rocks at him and then gets him down. Gruen does just that, and she does it seemingly with no effort at all. She reminds me why I read and why I write. Sara Gruen has given me hope. Hope in the inherent goodness of human beings and animals alike and hope in the possibilities.
Not since Atticus Finch has there been a character created with so much depth, so much heroism, strength and grief. And the ending is one of the best I’ve ever read. I could tell you, but then you’d miss the distinct pleasure of reading the book.
Sara Gruen is the author of three bestselling novels, Riding Lessons, Flying Changes and Water for Elephants. She has just sold her fourth and fifth novels to publisher Spiegel and Grau. Sara lives north of Chicago with one husband, three children, four cats, two goats, two dogs and a horse. She also recently adopted 10 infant Bonobo monkeys from a sanctuary in the Congo. A transplanted Canadian, Sara is now an American citizen currently living with her brood in an environmentalist community in Northern Illinois.
Beth M. Wood’s writing career began in 2002, when a counselor at Webster University informed her that she could, in fact, major in Writing. With her family’s support, she earned her BA in Professional Writing three years later and began writing press releases, newsletter articles and training manuals. She lives in St. Louis with her three beautiful children and one three-legged boxer. She is a marketing professional by trade, a devout reader and semi-fanatic editor who will occasionally sneak a red sharpie into restaurants to correct glaring grammatical errors on the menu.