Apparently, Sara was working on a novel idea and she came across a newspaper about the circus, and then she got so into it that she went around the United States to Florida finding copies of old books from the old 1930's circus, and they're in the novel for proof. In the fictional story is a man's life, transitioned between 1931 and 2001, a Polish Jacob Jankowski from 23 to 93. When he's 93, he's a disabled grouch with a family that doesn't like to be with him and is living in a hospital with everyone telling him what to do and helping him out a little too much. He's missing the outside world and is jealous of a newcomer McGuinty. When he's 23, it's the Great Depression, and after a tragic car accident, he pretty much has nothing left, so he leaves home and stows away to the circus on a train. There, he meets some folks who end up deciding not to throw him off the train. The boss f the circus is named August with a wife named Marlena who Jacob gets attracted to in a nanosecond, a drunk BFF named Camel and a grouchy roommate named Kinko, but his friends call him Walter. Jacob soon becomes the circus' vet with some good luck and is now getting by with his new job. An elephant the colour of a storm cloud soon becomes his priority, who is apparently supposed to be the circus' saviour but "doesn't know how to do anything but shit and eat."
Now, this book has the stench of the Great Depression written all over it. The water and job shortage around the world and lack of money for even the circus really shows without being so tediously detailed like Dan Simmons' Hyperion. However, I didn't like it as much as Riding Lessons, because in that book, Annemarie Zimmer has all these goals we know she needs to complete before the book ends. Water for Elephants is more like an everyday life novel and I didn't really know where it was going. The chapters were long but apparently every chapter is important. Then an incident occurs between Marlena and August that is similar to the events in Martha Ostenso's Wild Geese, except with a mental disorder twist, and I think all the characters overreacted. In conclusion, I think this is a novel not about what happens at the moment, but about the future, after the choice is made and after the animal is shot.
I was getting close to not recommending it about 3/4 through, but something that saves it are the moments when Jacob is an elder. I'll never be annoyed or upset with cranky old folks ever again. I finally understand what it's like to be trapped in a retirement home. Sara Gruen was so good at showing honest emotion, that it's hard to believe a 93 year old like Jacob didn't write this himself. It gets extra points for the ending, too.