by Sara Gruen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I actually liked this book more than I was expecting to. I really didn’t know anything going into it. I will admit the story was a bit predictable, but I wasn’t really disappointed by that at all. The back and forth jump from the old and young version of protagonist Jacob as a framing device was used well and I felt some genuine emotions for the older Jacob.
I liked the various characters you meet through the story. None of them were transparent at the first meeting and it made it interesting to get to know them all. At the same time, I never felt like too much attention was given to them that would deviate from the main story.
Full Review with Spoilers
This is one of those books I picked up because I had seen so much buzz at the time of it’s release. It sat on my shelf for a while before I finally got around to reading it. I went into it blind, no knowledge of what the story contained. I have to admit I liked it more than I expected. I enjoy the use of older Jacob as a framing device to tell the story of his past. The author did a good job making us really feel for him and the situation he is in. We see a grumpy old man whos family has nearly forgotten about him, but we learn what an interesting life he has lead through what is basically well placed flashbacks.
Jacob is a young man who just got a really tough break in life. His naivety is a bit sweet, and his character growth is interesting too. We don’t get to see much of who he was before he lost everything and literally runs away to join the circus. His development revolves around two things: his realization that the circus animals need someone who cares and Marlena. He’s already a good person when he shows up, so his time there is really more about losing the naivety that makes him seem unthreatening. Certain parts of him though never hit a turning point, like the fact that he never really does anything about the abuse the animals get from Marlena’s husband August, especially Rosie the elephant. He acknowledges his complacency during these events on more than one occasion, but doesn’t ever seem to do enough to make it right.
Naturally the harsh treatment of both people and animals in the circus is incredibly sad and again Jacob is used well as a plot device to showcase these issues faced during prohibition times. He goes from nearly finishing a veterinarian degree at a well respected college to owning literally nothing but the clothing on his back. His experiencing this sort of condition first hand and for the first time in his life amplifies our understanding of these conditions. I did love seeing him be a sort of bridge between the behind-the-scenes work force and the performers for the circus. His friendship with people like Walter (performer) and Camel (worker) was touching and made events at the end of the book that much more devastating.
Interestingly, I didn’t enjoy the “ending” young Jacob got as much as the true ending of the book that older Jacob experiences. I felt like young Jacob more or less getting everything he wanted with nearly zero consequence seemed too easy. Sadly yes, far too many people, both good and bad, died by the end and we can assume Jacob and Marlena probably struggled more before living comfortably, but all we see is that they end up together, get to keep the animals they want, have a baby and Jacob is allowed to finish his degree. For me, I felt older Jacob got a more satisfying ending. He basically loses all those things he found important back then for reasons such as old age and general family neglect and just hits his breaking point. He basically runs away to the circus again after somehow escaping the nursing home without being seen and finally finds the respect and “family” he used to have.
This book does a good job of telling us basically two stories that connect and spend a comfortable amount of time explaining this connection. It’s full of an interesting cast and while it may not end in a completely satisfying way, the journey to get there was worth the trip.