Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (Algonquin Books, 2007, 350pp.)
Water for Elephants follows two alternating storylines: the first traces the veterinary career of Jacob Jankowsi, a Cornell dropout who finds work with a little-known circus during the Great Depression. The second sees Jacob years later as a bored, temperamental old man in a nursing home. Having nothing but time, the older Jacob slips in and out of memories, mentally revisiting his days with the circus.
The main focus of the “circus” storyline is the love triangle between Jacob, the circus’s equestrian director, August, and August’s beautiful wife Marlena, a performer. Although they all start out as friends, it soon proves to be a disjointed friendship at best. Despite his charming exterior, August is a two-dimensional bully prone to violent rages. Jacob, on the other hand, is relatively sane, competent though naive, and shares a mutual passion with Marlena (also somewhat two-dimensional) for the circus animals.
The story has potential. Honestly, what’s a more romantic setting for a love story than the surreal world of the circus? Unfortunately, the circus merely serves as exquisite background scenery for the main drama, which turns out to be nothing more than a predictable love story between two cardboard characters I could honestly care less about. That said, it’s still worth a single read just for the background material itself.