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Book Review: Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

Just ten days shy of sitting for his Cornell University Veterinarian's license, a family tragedy changes 23-year-old Jacob's life. Devastated, shocked and alone, Jankowski abandons school and hops a train to anywhere, though he soon discovers he's jumped aboard a circus train. He's immediately given grunt work which could keep him from getting & ldquo;redlighted, & rdquo; otherwise known as being thrown from the train in the black of night. But once Uncle Al, the resourceful and unscrupulous Ringmaster, learns of Jacob's education, he's promoted to circus veterinarian.

Gruen, the author of Riding Lessons and Flying Changes, peels back the thick canvas curtain lifting illusion and revealing the complex, ugly and often disturbing underbelly of 1930's circus life. There's the fat lady, the dwarf and the kinkers. There's the burlesque performer who aims to take Jacob's virginity. There are the hardened rubes---with names like Camel, Blackie and Cecil---second and third class citizens next to the privileged performers who get to dine at tables with fresh linens. And of course, there are the animals---dozens of them---characters in this story as much as the people: Horses, giraffes, lions, orangutans, zebras, snakes, llamas and one very special elephant.

Life on the road seems always to be on the verge of spinning out of control. Uncle Al is unpredictable and backstabbing and can't always pony up for wages come payday. August, the animal trainer is a & ldquo;paragon schnitzophonic & rdquo; who's broad mood swings and violent outbursts inevitably seem aimed at Jacob. & August is also blindingly jealous of anyone who so much as sneezes in the direction of his beautiful wife, Marlena. Without giving away too much, it's safe to say that Jacob comes down with a real nasty cold. Anyway, Water for Elephants is a love story. A love-of-life story.

Told through flashbacks, Jacob's narrative shifts between his days spent in the Depression-era circus and those in old age home, where he actually suffers from depression. Without losing rhythm, the two distinct stories complement one another as Jacob grapples with the process of dying, relives his past, and decides his own future. Gruen's diligent research of circus culture rings true throughout the book, as does her portrait of what it is like to be old. & She has successfully created a novel that is heart-wrenching, thrilling, excrutiating, romantic and funny. You will be turning the pages with fervor right up until the very end.

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