Genre: Historical Fiction
Size: 350 pages
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Release Date: April 9, 2007
Stand Alone or Series: Stand Alone
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
Jacob is ninety three and living in a retirement home, through his dreams and daydreams he relives a tumultuous time in his life in his twenties. When Jacob is in his twenties he is getting ready to sit for his Veterinarian finals at Cornell University when he gets a call; his parents have been killed in a car accident. Then when he gets home he finds out that the bank has seized his parents’ house. In a fit of grief and sorrow he abandons his exams and hops a train that just happens to be part of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Through a series of circumstances he ends up working for them as their vet; taking care of the exotic animals in their menagerie. In the process of all of this he falls in love with a beautiful performer named Marlena who has a brutally viscous husband, who also happens to be Jacob’s boss.
There were a number of things I liked about this book. The story moves quickly and has a sense of mystery and doom about it as Jacob falls deeper into the seedy goings on in the circus and deeper in love with Marlena. It is very engaging.
It is clever how you see into Jacob’s life in the present while he is in a nursing home. These portions of the story really tug at your heart and give insight into an old man struggling to retain his sense of self in an environment where everything is sanitized and ordered. These glimpses are bittersweet in contrast to the crazy life Jacob lived; obviously this man has lived and lived well and it is heartbreaking to watch him struggle with the descent into age that we are all faced with.
The majority of the story is about Jacob’s life in the circus. Gruen doesn’t shy away from the nitty gritty including sex, violence, language; as such this is definitely an adult read. Issues such as animal cruelty, squalid living conditions for workers, and the Depression are woven throughout. Making the story very believable and easy to relate to.
All of the characters in this book are very human and engaging and have a lot of depth. Even the villainous characters (Al and August) have moments of graciousness and goodness. While the main “good” characters do things that border on bad, if only through neglect.
The only thing that really bothered me with this book is that I thought Jacob made too many bad decisions and too many mistakes. I understood that he was young and hot-headed, but at the same time he is supposed to be very smart…and well…let’s just say he doesn’t spend much time thinking about his actions. A lot of what happened he brought on himself and I think that this was inconsistent with the way he was presented as an upstanding citizen and character.
The book ends well and should leave readers happy and smiling. The story is expertly told and the look into the way a circus runs fascinating. It would have been nice to have an afterward of Gruen talking about how accurately she represented the circus in this book. Were all circuses like this? Or was this one particularly bad?
Overall this was a very engaging story, I enjoyed it a lot, and am happy that I read it. The characters are fascinating, the glimpses into both life in the circus and life in a nursing home intriguing as well. I loved how the book was set up with us seeing the elder Jacob’s memories/story through his eyes. Definitely a book to check out if you are at all interested in circuses or people living during the Depression Era.