Much as I loved Sara Gruen’s Riding Lessons and Flying Changes, I knew they were on-the-job training. After all, there’s Water for Elephants perched on the New York Times best-seller list. And well-deserved. People clearly love this book, and Gruen is such a crackerjack writer that it was a real pleasure to see her widen her scope and achieve something bigger and richer than her previous novels.
I was really impressed by the double frame that starts it off. First Jacob Jankowski is in the midst of a crisis under a circus tent — that’ll grab you by the throat. Then Jacob is 93, in a retirement home, subject to all the indignity that entails. Then we finally get back to Jacob Jankowski, age 23, effectively running away to join a circus in the 1930s. Depression, prohibition, trains, hoboes, roustabouts, the whole thing. Lots of big characters including the lovely Marlena, the equestrian performer in pink sequins, the red-headed dwarf Kinko, and a wonderful elephant with a sense of humor and a sense of justice.
Gruen goes back and forth between Jacob’s florid circus past and his dreary nursing-home present. Please note, both the circus and the nursing home are highly ritualized closed communities. Fortunately Gruen knows how to make a story lively so the linoleum-and-rubber-food version is used as punctuation, almost to bring down the high emotional pitch of the circus narrative.
I knew she had to have done a ton of research. This is just not material a writer has at her fingertips. But boy, did it ever feel authentic. Sights, smells, sounds, the grand structure and the small detail are all in place. My problem with the book is a question of taste rather than execution: it was just a little feverish for me, kind of a Baz Luhrmann vision of something that’s already pretty thrilling. And the end struck me as corny, if perfectly appropriate. Maybe the difficulty is that the contrast Gruen sets up, between the circus and the nursing home, is so great as to be irreconcilable. Maybe there isn’t much room left for average plain-vanilla normal life. On the other hand, perhaps it’s a fable and I’m reading the whole thing too literally. Lord knows that would be nothing new.