The book starts out at the point where everything is falling apart, which means, there is no place to go from there, but up. I mean, it can’t get any worse than a circus menagerie getting loose and going crazy, right? Well, if you are Jacob Jankowski, then yes it can, because the love of your life just so happens to be in the tent where the panther has decided to go.
But, I get ahead of myself.
If you have ever seen the movie The Notebook, then you are familiar with the concept of jumping around in time. One minute you are with young Noah and Alley, the next it is old Noah reading Alley’s diary to her. Same situation in this book, to an extent.
Jacob is in a nursing home and a circus has come to town. The big top is going up in view of the nursing home and has all the residents in a tizzy. Time has begun to mean very little to him as is obvious by the first couple of sentences in chapter one: “I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other.”
As the older Jacob, he cracks me up almost the entire book. He gets into an argument with another guy in the home and has to do to his room, almost causes a scene because he doesn’t want mashed food anymore, and gets sent to his room. He spends a good deal of the book in his room. He also has a lot to say about old people, which comes across funny since he is old.
The younger Jacob is different though. His story starts out incredibly sad.
He’s away at college, almost finishing up becoming a vet so that he can go back and work with his father, when he gets called away from a class. He has to go home right away, there’s been an accident. And just like that, he is completely alone in the world.
When he tries to go back and finish his testing at the school, he finds that he can’t do it. So, he just up and leaves. He doesn’t have any destination in mind, he just wants to go.
Once aboard the train, after being given a chance by one of the men inside, and
not being tossed out randomly, he realizes he is on a circus train. The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth train to be exact. Although, there are no Benzini Brothers here, just Uncle Al.
The book is historically accurate to the times. Showing how desperate situations were becoming, how cutthroat the circus life was.
Everyone just assumes that running away to join the circus is a key to the easy life, not so. Sara Gruen gives us a small peek into that lifestyle, or at least the workers lives, not the performers. They do seem to have the glamorous life that the circus promises. They never miss a paycheck or lift a finger to prepare the tents or food or help with the packing.
Jacob winds up falling in love with August’s (the guy in charge of the animals) wife, Marlena.
Marlena catches Jacob’s eye his first day on the job. She is standing in her sequined costume talking with August, and petting one of the horses that is in her act. She is the main reason Jacob stays. Love at first sight, if you will.
August is a nasty man, and that’s the nicest thing I can say about him. In the beginning, you almost want to like him, and then you start to see the darkness in him. This is later confirmed to be schizophrenia by Uncle Al. This is only brought up after August goes crazy, beating the newly acquired, Rosie the elephant and then moves on to beating Jacob and Marlena. He’s an equal opportunist. Needless to say, I don’t like him, and it makes it hard to feel bad for him when Marlena decides to leave him.
This book is a roller coaster of feelings. Although, I never got extremely teary, there were some parts that really made my heart ache for Jacob.
If you are looking for a good period piece with a little bit of circus, a touch of romance, and an elephant thrown into the mix, then this is the book for you.