Like the legendary circus that it depicts, the novel Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is an entertainment. It is a quick paced story set in the Depression Era with a memorable climax and a lot of historical detail. What it lacks, however, is believability.
A couple of things bother me. The first is that when Jacob returns home for his parents funeral, the will is read very quickly and the bank takes everything almost immediately. The support network of church people and his father's veterinary clients is apparent one day and disappears the next. The bank and the community would have been better with Jacob taking over his father's veterinary practice. I think the whole set up is improbable.
The second thing that bothers me is Jacob's actions are almost completely predictable. He disregards all danger, falls for the beautiful woman (a character without any depth), fights the bad guys, etc. There is a template for this character in many other "young man faced with hardship" stories. The bad guys are also cookie cutter characters. Jacob's friend Walter is the only character in the primary story that I really liked.
I do, however, like the alternate story of Jacob at 90 or 93 (he can't remember his age). Again, he is a bit predictable but he seems more believable. I can imagine people actually facing his problems. His eventual fate is a clever twist to the story.
The best part of the book is all the circus life description. It made me wonder about the history of circuses. Did owners often withhold pay? Was there a hierarchy among the circus family? Did circuses have orchestras? What were the living conditions for humans and animals? Were the men always so drunk? How many circuses were run out of town? Some readers may ask for some nonfiction books to see how accurate Water for Elephants is.
Gruen, Sara. Water for Elephants. Algonquin Books, 2006. ISBN 1565124995.