Sara Gruen certainly knows how to craft an irresistible hook: The first four pages of her new novel Water For Elephants feature an exotic-animal stampede at a circus, a gory public murder, and a reference to a secret kept for 70 years, all presented with just enough detail to whet imaginations, and just enough vagueness to require the 300-odd pages of flashbacks and backstory that follow. As effective as it is, that initial chapter seems fairly gimmicky, but Gruen quickly proves she knows how to flesh out an irresistible hook as well. For all its low-key incident, Water For Elephants is a compulsive page-turner, and not merely because of the question of who dies and why in the opening pages.
Protagonist Jacob Jankowski narrates the book from two vantages: In one, he's a ninety-something nursing-home resident, irascible but miserable over his withered body and shrinking faculties. In the other, he's a naïve 23-year-old virgin about to complete a Cornell veterinary degree during the Great Depression when his parents die in a car accident, leaving him destitute, denied a family practice to join, and generally distraught. Fleeing everything, he impulsively jumps aboard a train headed out of town and winds up apprenticed to a traveling circus whose rough-edged roustabouts knock him around, then take him in. Before long, he's learning about circuses, making eyes at sympathetic animal-show performer Marlena, worrying over her abusive/adoring husband August, and entering into a dangerous, unpredictable three-way relationship straight out of Sophie's Choice.
Water For Elephants emerged from Gruen's extensive research into Depression-era circus life, and it's a mild letdown to learn in an afterword that many of her most imaginative, picaresque story developments were taken directly from history. It blunts her creative accomplishment somewhat, particularly since the novel's only real disappointment is its scale: Gruen sketches out enough colorful characters to flesh out a John Irving novel, then banishes most of them until they're needed to play generic bit parts in her simple, central love triangle. Her premise could support a much deeper (and heftier) book. Still, her adroit writing—particularly her characterizations of aged, unhappy Jacob, who's so used to being treated like a toddler by preemptory nurses that he doesn't remember how to handle respect when he gets it—support a fascinating setting and a richly anecdotal story that's enjoyable right up to the final, inevitable revelation.