Last week our book club, "The Bookies", met to discuss our first book of the year "Water for Elephants" by Sara Gruen. It was a great choice to start off with as it was well received by all.
"Water for Elephants" is simply about a man, Jacob, reflecting back on his time with a train circus,"The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth", during his 20's. As his recollections of his past become crisp and detailed, Jacob is dismayed to find that his mental acuity in the present day is fading. Indeed he is unsure even as to his own age, though he is quite sure it is either 90 or 93. Often and much to his dismay, he seems to "awaken" from a recollection to find that he was speaking about it out loud. He can no longer keep track of "his people" - the relatives that visit him every sunday though he may recognize certain features in a grandchild or great grandchild (a smile, eyes, a laugh) as belonging to one in particular of his five children.
His own struggle with the affects of aging, in addition to the underlying social commentary on nursing homes, hit home with many of the Bookies. We had a great discussion concerning our own thoughts and fears regarding aging. Particularly, the emotional conflict between wanting to care for own parents in their old age but not wanting to be a burden our (future) children when we are the elderly ones requiring assistance was debated, as was the idea that our society/culture is perhaps too selfish and disposable (i.e. that we do not venerate our elders but "throw our old people away" by placing them in care facilities rather than bringing them into our own homes). A stimulating, but almost melancholic, discussion!
We agreed that one of the major strengths of this novel is that not only are the human characters memorable and interesting, but Gruen does a great job of bringing the individual personalities of the animals in the circus menagerie to life. From Rosie the elephant (who we all wanted more of) to Queenie the terrier, Gruen's animals have as diverse personalities as the humans they interact with. Also evident is the amount of research Gruen conducted on train circuses. The use of photos of actual performers from period circuses adds to both the tone and realism of the story.
Honestly so much more could be said but then you'd miss out on all this fantastic book has to offer.