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Water for Elephants    by Sara Gruen order for
Water for Elephants
by Sara Gruen
Order:  USA  Can
Algonquin, 2008 (2006)
Hardcover, Softcover, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Mary Ann Smyth

Water for Elephants is the book of the year for me so far. At a friend's recommendation, I picked this novel up with trepidation. I really wasn't interested in reading about a circus in the 1930s at the height of the Great Depression. I assumed that such a story certainly couldn't be uplifting. But the characters are so real so believable - that once I started this unusual and thoroughly researched book, I fell in love with it and wanted it to never end.

We first meet Jacob today in his nineties, living in a nursing home and hating every minute of it. Then we step back over sixty years and see Jake's introduction to life in a small circus. He meets Camel, an alcoholic who is fast approaching the end of his life, as well as Ringmaster August and his wife Marlena, who works with the horses. Jake ends up sleeping in Walter the dwarf's quarters with Walter's dog Queenie. Grady and Earl are roustabouts. Uncle Al, the owner of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, has Blackie to do his bidding, no matter how heinous. And then there is Rosie - the elephant.

Speed forward again to catch up with the older, obstinate - and still well able to shuffle around with his walker - Jake. Then back to the circus.

Water for Elephants is an entrancing, engrossing read that stays with the reader long after the last page is turned. It's utterly delightful, but also horrifying as a statement of hard times the United States went through and never wants to repeat. Sara Gruen takes on the problems that come with old age with sympathy and understanding. A thread of a love story twists its way into the plot. And above all, Water for Elephants proves the value of memory.

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