Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
I've been really looking forward to this month's book club discussion because, even before I read the book, I knew it'd be a good one.
A ninety-something year-old man's recollections of his time traveling with the Benzini Brothers Circus during the Great Depression. That, right there, is a brief, over-simplified synopsis. Water for Elephants opens with protagonist Jacob in a nursing home. The circus is coming to town and all the residents are excited. Jacob's anger at hearing another resident gloating about being a water-carrier for a circus' elephant (impossible!), spurs his own memories. The narrative proceeds to alternate between a youthful Jacob, who accidentally joins a circus, and the ornery elderly Jacob.
We were impressed by so many different things in this novel: the two voices, Gruen's capacity for ambiguity, the amount of research that went into the novel, the portrayal of animals, the vividness of the story, that we were able to react so strongly to some of the characters (August in particular), and, most importantly, that the "old Jacob" sections could have been cut and the novel would still have been strong. Also, we wondered, if we hadn't known the author was a woman would we have assumed he was a man?
Water for Elephants gave us so much to talk about. More significantly, we all liked the novel. In fact, everyone that I've been in contact with who has read Water for Elephants genuinely liked it (including both my mother and father).
Apparently the audio edition is read by two different actors, one provides the voice for young Jacob, the other for old Jacob. Two of the book club members listened to the audio, one loved having the two distinct voices, the other didn't (mostly because she didn't like the old voice).