I started reading Sara Gruen's "Water for Elephants" two nights ago, and I haven't gotten a wink of sleep since. Well, maybe one or two, but not nearly as many as I did when I was reading far less interesting books. And it's my sister's fault. She remembered me linking to the carni blog earlier in the year and got me this book for my birthday. And I can't put it down. Last night I purposely went to bed early -- 11:30 -- figuring that I would just read a couple pages and get a good night's rest. I finally willed myself to close the book and turn the lamp off at 2:30.
"Water for Elephants" is the tale of a 90- (or 93, he doesn't know) year old man living in an assisted-living facility and dreaming back on his time in the 1930s when he worked as a veterinarian for a travelling circus. His name is Jacob and, shortly before taking his final exams at Cornell University, his parents are killed in a car crash. They were all he had and it turns out that they sold all they had to help put him through veterinary school. The grief is overwhelming and he suddenly, simply, starts walking. And without giving away any of the details, he walks himself right onto the Benzini Brothers travelling circus -- a wannabe Ringling Bros, if there ever was one.
Gruen has clearly researched this topic well as the telling of this fictional character's experiences drip with authenticity. Everything you never realized you wanted to know about life on a travelling circus springs from the page: the vernacular, the sleeping arrangements, the pecking order, what the animals eat, how people got along and, more commonly, didn't get along. And even how one goes about losing their virginity in the cooch tent. It's voyeuristic reading at its finest, but it's also a really sweet story too. Jacob is extremely likable and you definitely feel his pain as he tries to do right by the animals, even when he knows it could cost him his job... or worse. I dare not continue out of risk of spoiling the story for you.
Normally, at this time in writing about a book like this I would mention that I don't read a lot of fiction. But you know what, I can't say that anymore. I've been reading more and more fiction lately and the good stuff -- the really good stuff -- is phenomenal. I'd put this right up there with "The Kite Runner", "Freddie & Fredericka" and "Life of Pi" as some of my favorite fiction. In fact, I can't remember the last time I saw a movie with as good a story as any of these. "Water for Elephants" is an incredible book. It's well-written and very, very hard to put down as the crusties in the corner of my eyes can now attest.
Link to the book at B&N.