(disclaimer: Didn't take notes or mark pages. Just read it.)
Remember that final exam in college when your mind blanked and you scribbled away with blind panic? Jacob Jankowski flees Cornell in Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants and joins the circus instead.
(In all fairness to a sweetly flawed, sincere character, he'd just found out both parents were killed in a car crash.)
Jacob jumps aboard a moving train and ends up among the lowly grunt workers of the corrupt Benzini Brothers traveling circus. One unfinished exam from a veterinary degree, he finagles a job as staff vet.
The story is told by elder Jacob who, in present-day chapters, waits in a nursing home for his family to take him to a circus performance. Old Jacob lives mostly in his memories to escape the gelatinous grub and senile compatriots that comprise his actual day-to-day. The character is consistent across decades -- both are prone to grumpy self-indignance. This honest self-awareness kept me on board with him for what otherwise could have been unconvincing heroicism.
Because truth is, the story itself is fraught with cliches -- the characters that should be bad are, the working men are gruff but kindly, Jacob and the leggy performer, Marlena, fall in love at first sight. The circus freaks have their own moral system distinct from Jacob's Ivy League past but, in the carnivalesque tradition, a reader that withholds judgment is rewarded by coming to the usual broader understanding of goodness.
While cliche, the story is well-told. At one point Jacob, murder on the brain, creeps from car to car with Robin Hood cunning atop a racing train with a dagger between his teeth. That the dagger actually tears this hero's lips makes him more of one.
My biggest complaint is that the circus becomes a flat backdrop for the machinations of Jacob, Marlena and her husband, the cruel but charming August. That Gruen can evoke the gritty chaos of circus life when she wishes makes me wish she did so more often. It's compelling. This makes sense when, in an ending author's note, she says the novel was inspired by an archive of circus photos (some featured between chapters) that fired a scholarly fascination with the lifestyle.
Despite shortcomings, Gruen's poised prose and narrative construction -- the prologue foretells the end, but the final twist is a surprise even though you've read it all before -- make Water for Elephants a worthy read.