Publishing Info: Algonquin Books, 2006
Number of Pages: 331
Book Category: Fiction
When you’re five, you know your age down to the month. Even in your twenties you know how old you are. I’m twenty-three, you say, or maybe twenty-seven. But then in your thirties something strange starts to happen. It’s a mere hiccup at first, an instant of hesitation. How old are you? Oh, I’m—you start confidently, but then you stop. You were going to say thirty-three, but you’re not. You’re thirty-five. And then you’re bothered, because you wonder if this is the beginning of the end. It is, of course, but it’s decades before you admit it.
He was studying to be a veterinarian. Unbeknownst to Jacob, his parents had mortgaged themselves to the hilt to put him through vet school. The idea was for Jacob to return home and join his father in the family practice—E. Janokowski and Son, Doctors of Veterinary Medicine. But on the brink of graduation, Jacob is called out of class. His parents have been killed in a car accident. He’s alone in the world. He returns home to bury his parents and finds that his legacy—the vet practice—is gone. It is the Great Depression and like others, his parents had fallen on hard times and there is nothing left—the bank claims it all.
Although Jacob returns to school to sit for his final exam, he walks out without completing it, follows a road down to the train tracks, and hops onto a passing train—a n action that changes everything. For this isn’t an ordinary train—it is the Flying Squadron of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Jacob has landed on a circus train.
A less profitable and more shady circus than Ringling, the Benzini Brothers circus is its own society—populated by two basic social castes: the Performers and the Working Men. They live their lives on the circus train—crisscrossing the country and setting up in various small towns around America. With his veterinary background, Jacob soon finds himself in charge of the menagerie—the collection of animals that perform in the circus. From horses to tigers to monkeys, Jacob cares for the animals with compassion and concern—doing the best he can in difficult circumstances. (After all, when even the men don’t get paid some days, there isn’t much money for animal food.)
He is befriended by a married couple who perform in the circus. Marlena is the beautiful star who performs with the Liberty Horses. August—Marlena’s tempermental husband—is the equestrian director and superintendent of animals (in other words, Jacob’s boss). Jacob is instantly smitten with Marlena but works hard to conceal his feelings—August has a dark temper that can flare unexpectedly. At first Jacob can control his attraction, but when the circus takes on Rosie—an elephant—things become complicated.
The fates of Jacob, Rosie, Marlena and August become forever intertwined—linked together by love, hate, jealousy and violence. How this story plays out forms the core of the book—taking a path that is full of twists, turns and surprises.
I read this book for the Random Bestseller part of my own Take A Chance Challenge. This particular challenge asks you to do the following:
Go to Random.org and, using the True Random Number Generator, enter the number 1950 for the min. and 2008 for the max. and then hit generate. Then go to this site and find the year that Random.org generated for you and click on it. Then find the bestseller list for the week that would contain your birthday for that year. Choose one of the bestsellers from the list that comes up, read it and write about it.
My random year was 2006. When looking at the bestsellers in late September, I was torn between reading Water for Elephants and Marley & Me. Both were books I’ve never read but had heard about ad nauseum. After debating, I chose Water for Elephants as it was a book that had always intrigued me but for one reason or another I had never actually read. (Ironically, for the Public Spying part of the challenge—which asks you to read a book that you see someone else reading in public—my book ended up being Marley & Me! So I’ll be reading that anyway. Isn’t fate funny sometimes?)
In addition, Gruen establishes a framing device in the prologue that influences the reader from the very start of the novel. I found this particular choice extremely effective—and I loved how she pulled it off and tied it together at the end. I love when an author plays with her readers a little bit, and Gruen did a great job in this aspect.
If you’re looking for a movie to go with the book, I must recommend Dumbo. I kept picturing scenes from that movie as I read the book, and I could completely imagine this story being told in a similar way.
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