In Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen chronicles the life of her main character, Jacob Jankowski at two different points in time: One, as a twenty three-year-old who suddenly finds himself orphaned with nothing to his name during America's Great Depression circa the early '30s, landing a job as a (not quite graduated) veterinarian on the train that carries the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.
The second, as a ninety-('Or ninety-three. One or the other.')year-old in a nursing home, frustrated by the frailty of his aging body and on disagreeable terms with just about everything (and everyone) else, who spends his free time daydreaming about his secret past and whose possible highlight these days is the little variation in his daily (unappetizing) meals.
What I look for in a book is how the characters come to life and how they are developed throughout their stories. And with this book, it's quite obvious that the author has done one heck of a research as she brings to life characters that are very vivid, very true to the setting of this novel through a vocabulary that made me feel as if I was being transported to the circus world myself. I had to look up a few terms before I could fully understand how they tie to the circus during the Great Depression -- words like roustabouts, jake, eight-pagers etc.
However, it wasn't just Jacob Jankowski's complicated love story with Marlena or the weird bond formed with his grumpy dwarf carriage-mate and other roustabouts or even the helter-skelter of it all as the circus fights through desperate times that made this story so compelling. More than all that, it is the relationship between the human characters and another star of the show, Rosie the elephant. Rosie's role in this novel is heartwarming and as she goes through mindless abuse by Ringmaster August, she still smiles and will happily accept watermelon, booze or lemonade. Through Rosie, we see the compassion that she teaches to everyone around her but in a turn of events, we also see the malevolence that she is capable of. After all, an elephant never forgets.
It's quite sad that the novel only lasted so long, but I'm glad to say the ending was an unexpected surprise, in a good way too. Right now, I'm looking forward to the movie! The only thing that I am irritated about is that they picked Robert Pattinson to star as Jacob Jankowski. Gah. The trailer, however looks quite promising:-