February's book club selection is Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. I had seen this book on many a bookstore shelf over the last couple of years, but it had never really grabbed my attention. I can't believe what I was missing! This book was rich and textured and gritty and beautiful.
It's an emotional tale of one man's accidental circus life. In Water for Elephants, Jacob Jankowski is a ninety-something year-old man remembering his time with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. I found the present-day scenes in Mr. Jankowski's nursing home heartbreaking. After living such an exciting life it must be especially trying being relegated to a corner of the world where his greatest fantasies are either one more "roll in the hay" with a woman or maybe just an ear of corn on the cob. Mr. Jankowski takes great offense at the mushy, tasteless food he is allowed. When one particularly kind nurse brings him her fruit salad and he sees that it includes apple he can't speak for the tears he is attempting to contain. Of this nurse, he says, "I'm so used to being scolded and herded and managed and handled that I'm no longer sure how to react when someone treats me like a real person." Then as he is remembering his wife's swift decline and death, I was unable to contain my own tears. I'm sure I looked like a fool, walking down the sidewalk returning from the bus stop, reading a book and blubbering. "Although there are times I'd give anything to have her back, I'm glad she went first. Losing her was like being cleft down the middle. I wouldn't have wanted her to go through that. Being the survivor stinks."
The descriptions of life in the circus were full of moments I never could have imagined. Sara Gruen researched so many different aspects of the circus and it seems none of it went to waste. Mr. Jankowski becomes the circus veterinarian. At one point, he is giving fruit to an orangutan and is shocked when the animal seems to thank him. And this is, after all, titled Water for Elephants and Rosie, the elephant is an actual character not just piece of the background.
I really can't say much more without retelling the whole story- and you can bet that I'm tempted. I can't wait for our book club discussion. I will also be sure to see the film version that will be released this coming April. I can only hope it will be as good as the book, but there is a lot to live up to here.