For me, the most important part of a book is its ending. A so-so plot or flat, underdeveloped characters can be at least partially redeemed in my eyes if the last few pages blow me away. In the same way, a fantastic book becomes lackluster if that final, lasting impression falls flat. The resolution of Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is easily my favorite part of the book, but it wasn’t the novel’s only strength.
Jacob Jankowski is a ninety-something-year-old man recovering in a nursing home when the circus comes to town. The promise of a show stirs up the elderly residents and for Jacob, triggers memories of his youth. A combination of family tragedy and the Great Depression seventy years before had Jacob train jumping. Coincidence landed him on the train carrying the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Jacob’s summer of 1931 echoes back to him as he fights to maintain his independence at age ninety, or ninety-three.
Gruen’s juxtaposition of an elderly Jacob that wavers between rambunctious and stubborn with his timid and inexperienced younger self is beautifully executed and keeps the novel at a steadily building pace that peaks with a stampede, a small glimpse of which opens novel. The use of photographs when the narrative switched back to younger Jacob’s perspective were my favorite aspect of the novel’s layout. Many coming from Ringling archives, the black and white photos provide a visual that cannot quite be captured by words. In an afterword, Gruen admits that photographs like those were the inspiration for the novel (in fact, Gruen had abandoned work on another book after seeing the photos and reading an accompanying article).
The depiction of life on the traveling circus is a glamorous and sometimes gritty look behind the lights and sequins. I wasn’t impressed with the character of Marlena, one of the performers and central figures in the novel. She was a little flat, a plot device more than a personality of her own. But, Marlena was pretty much the only character I found to be that way.
Walter, aka “Kinko,” a dwarf who rooms with Jacob; Uncle Al, the owner and ringmaster who adds to his own circus by scavenging pieces from competitors who went under; August, the director of the menagerie animals and Jacob’s boss; Rosie, the elephant bought to help save the show financially but who costs more than she may be worth. These and the rest of the supporting characters make Jacob as narrator appear that much stronger (though I prefer old-man-Jacob to young-man-Jacob).
The last few pages are my favorite part, but I won’t go into too much detail (I hate spoilers myself and refuse to ruin anything for anyone else). What I will say is that even though elements were completely predictable, it surprised (and pleased) me overall. An ending doesn’t have to be a surprise or unexpected, but it must be memorable.
Sara Gruen wrote two books prior to Water for Elephants, Flying Changes and Riding Lessons. Her next novel, Ape House is due out September 7th and is available for preorder. Water for Elephants is currently being adapted for the big screen and is slated for a 2011 release.
In the mean time, I may have to rewatch Dumbo and both seasons of HBO’s Carnivale while I wait for the circus train to pass by on the tracks behind my house on it’s annual circuit.