Even though I've never seen the movie, I had a hard time not picturing Robert Pattinson as Jacob Jankowski, Water for Elephants' male protagonist. Despite this, or because of it, I'm not quite sure which, I loved Sara Gruen's best-seller. Finally, months after the film was released, I got around to picking it up. And it was worth the wait.
The story opens in three different time periods almost simultaneously. The added benefit to this plot device is that I didn't have to sneak a peak at the last page to figure out how the book ends, a nasty little habit of mine. The author tells you right up front and while some may find this ruins the book for them, it really does not detracts from the overall impact of the novel. So when you get to this point, keep reading!
The story follows Jacob, a 23 year old Cornell veterinary student through two consecutive tragedies that force a decision to leave Cornell before he can finish his final exams, and then to leave home altogether. Jacob finds himself attached to a "train" circus, and he meets the performers, managers and workmen of this particular circus. He becomes interested in Marlena, the wife of August, the Equestrian and Menagerie Manager, a mecurial man who is, in fact, a paranoid schizophrenic. In Jacob's case, the paranoia is definitely warranted, as he and Marlena draw closer over their love for the circus animals (especially Rosie, the Polish-understanding elephant). Their mutual hatred of August and Uncle Al, the circus owner, who makes a habit of throwing workers off the circus train at night (a practice known as redlighting) draws them inevitably closer together. When a major stampede occurs, things come to a head, literally, as Rosie takes action, and Marlena and Jacob have a decision to make.
The story takes place in 1931 with flash forwards to the present day, as Jacob retells the story of his life from his nursing home bed. These chapters tended to depress me just a bit, as the author really brings home the fact that we all grow older and sometimes change beyond our own recognition. The ending of the book redeemed itself in this regard, but I was still left looking in the mirror at my own tell-tale wrinkles and age spots.
Water for Elephants is, ultimately, an uplifting book where good (and circus animals) do triumph over evil. I'm still not sure I'd like to see the movie. Some things may be better left to the imagination.