Her protagonist, Jacob Jankowski, is an almost-graduated student of veterinary medicine at Cornell when his life falls apart in 1931. His parents die, and he discovers that the family has no money. He staggers away from school without finishing his final exams. And dumb luck takes him to the Benzini Brothers' Most Spectacular Show on Earth. There he finds a brilliant dwarf clown who reads Shakespeare and under-the-counter dime-store pornography, an old roustabout who has permanently damaged himself drinking illegal alcohol, a venal circus owner willing to break any law to help him equal the Ringling Brothers, a paranoid schizophrenic animal trainer, and the trainer's beautiful wife, the delicate Marlena, who leads a dozen horses without whips or harness, and who can flip from the back of an elephant as delicately as a leaf drifts down from a tree. And then there is the elephant, Rosie, who understands commands only in Polish, and who is obviously the apple of her author's eye. Gruen juggles her characters as if she were an act in the center ring, keeping everything in the air but always remembering that the stage is the most important thing.
Water for Elephants jumps between the story of 1931 and the memory that plays out in Jacob's mind many years later, when he is ninety-three and alone in a nursing home. His grandchildren have mostly forgotten him, and he can't keep them straight anyway. Sara Gruen finds a way of joining the old man's memory to the long-lost events to make what may be the perfect summer read smart, historically informed, filled with love of people and animals, and ultimately a very moving novel.
Sara Gruen reads from Water for Elephants at Nicola's Books on Wednesday, June 7.