The unique setting makes Water for Elephants a delightful read. The novel starts out in a present-day nursing home as a narrative of one of the residents, Jacob Jankowski. Although Jacob has some difficulty remembering whether he’s ninety or ninety-three years old, he can easily recall the time he spent as the veterinarian for a mid-sized traveling circus during the Depression. The story alternates between the past and the present, reflecting Jacob’s mind.
Jacob is a strong character, and author Sara Gruen maintains the integrity of his personality throughout the story, even when portraying Jacob at different ages. She also develops believable supporting characters in Jacob’s love interest, Marlena, and his nemesis, August. In addition, I liked the tension that was created as the story wove its way back and forth between the decades. The description was solid without being intrusive, although I would have enjoyed a little more texture through the inclusion of the various smells of a circus. Gruen explains in an extensive, but interesting author’s note how she came to write this story.
I recommend this book to multi-generational readers. It has wide appeal to those who enjoy historical fiction, drama, and romance, and touches on issues that cross generations: love and loss, following your dreams while earning a living, and the traumas of youth and aging.