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When 23-year-old Jacob Janowski's parents are killed in a car crash a week before he completes veterinary school, leaving him with nothing, he skips out on his exams, leaves town, and jumps a train, unaware that it is the train of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth circus. He finds a job as veterinarian for the show animals, including an elephant named Rosie, makes friends with other circus workers and performers, falls in love with Marlena, the star of the equestrian act, and struggles to decipher the behaviour of Marlena's husband, August, the owner of the circus who fanicies himself an animal trainer, a man who wavers rapidly between charm and brutality. At the same time, Jacob learns about the circus' darker side and struggles to find a way to leave without bringing harm and danger to his new friends.
The narrative alternates between the perspective of 23-year-old Jacob with the circus, and 93-year-old Jacob at a nursing home chafing against enforced inactivity and anticipating a visit to a present-day circus that has come to town.
Water for Elephants, a book by Sara Gruen, was also adapted into a film starring Robert Pattinson as Jacob, Reese Witherspoon as Marlena, and Christoph Waltz as Marlena's husband, August, the animal trainer. It was released in 2011 to moderate success.
This work contains examples of:
- Alliterative Name: Jacob Janowski.
- All Part of the Show: When Rosie panics and runs off during a show while Marlena was riding her, Marlena ends up having to jump clear, hanging from a high rafter before dropping and landing square on her feet with a flourish. She ends up bruising her feet badly.
- Aluminum Christmas Trees: Inverted, in a way. With all the booze that seems to flow freely throughout the story, you completely forget that this was set during the Prohibition era (right up until the police show up and raid the party at the speakeasy.)
- And the Adventure Continues...: The book ends with Jacob leaving the old folks' home and running away with another circus.
- Arranged Marriage: Marlena's parents are hovering on the edge of this with her, offering several different suitors before focusing on an old rich banker. She leaves before they can seal the deal.
- Berserk Button: Don't mention Ringling in front of Uncle Al.
- Also don't hurt Rosie unless you want Jacob to come after you.
- Caught with Your Pants Down: Jacob walks in on Walter (aka Kinko) masturbating to a magazine, and Walter ends up getting back at him by orchestrating for Jacob to be humiliated by the circus' resident hooker. They end up friends, though.
- Chekhov's Skill: In the movie, Rosie learns how to remove the stake from the ground to free herself so she can go over and steal some lemonade. At the end of the film, Rosie puts the same skill to use, removing the stake and slashing it across the back of August's neck, killing him.
- Jacob says his prayers in Polish near the beginning and later we find that Rosie only understands Polish commands.
- Conjoined Twins: Uncle Al goes on a hunt for a man with his infant brother's body sticking out of his chest, until he finds that Ringling Bros. have already snatched him up.
- Crazy Jealous Guy: August.
- Curse of the Ancients: Though Jacob certainly doesn't have a problem with normal cuss words, he and some others lets a few of these loose.
- Grandma, What Massive Hotness You Have!: Older Jacob comments (internally) that the nurse Rosemary is quite pretty. She is still in her forties, though.
- The Great Depression: The setting of the book. Jacob is left penniless after his parents' death because the bank that contained their savings failed and his father, also a veterinarian, let the neighbors pay him in eggs and beans because they didn't have money and he couldn't bear to see animals suffer.
- How We Got Here: The prologue gives the climax of the narrative, and then goes back to cover the events before that point.
- Insane Equals Violent: August in every possible way.
- Kick the Dog: Or the elephant. The big indication that August is a bad guy despite frequently acting nice is that he abuses the animals. And Marlena. Also, Uncle Al and Walter postponing feeding and watering animals they want to buy in hopes of getting a lower price.
- Mistaken for Cheating: Marlena plans a surprise dinner party for August, with Jacob helping set it up. August walks in and sees the two of them opening a bottle of champagne, jumping to the worst conclusion. The fact that Rosie The Elephant is also in the tent with them surprisingly does little to allay his suspicions.
- Nested Story: A mild version: After the prologue, the story starts with 93-year-old Jacob in an old folks' home remembering the past, and it skips back and forth between his story at 23 years old and his story at 93 years old.
- Once More, with Clarity: A murder is shown in the prologue, and then again near the end of the book. From the prologue the reader is clearly intended to infer that the murderer is Marlena; from the later scene we find out that it is in fact Rosie.
- Only the Leads Get a Happy Ending: Jacob and Marlena marry and live happily together for decades; pretty much all the other major human characters die.
- Rant-Inducing Slight: Older Jacob throws a fit when another retiree claims to have worked in a circus and carried water for elephants.
- Senior Sleep Cycle: Older Jacob a few times.
- Title Drop: In the retirement home, one of the other retirees begins to gather all sorts of attention and adoration for himself by telling everyone that he used to work in a circus, carrying water for elephants.
- This has the effect of pissing Jacob off, partially because he worked for the circus in his younger years, and knows that elephants drink far too much water to make carrying it to them by hand practical.
- Tropey Come Home: Walter goes into Heroic BSOD when he loses Queenie, his dog. Turns out August picked her up as the train was starting out, and Marlena gave her back later.
- Unreliable Narrator: Discussed by Jacob and Rosemary in the retirement home: The man claiming to have worked for the circus obviously never did, but he isn't lying because he truly believes it is the truth. He's just too senile to remember his own history. It is also strongly implied that Jacob is similarly going senile and may not be entirely clear on his own past.
- Unusual Euphemism: "Redlighting", a term used to refer to throwing people off the train. Usually while crossing a bridge.
- Yandere: August turns into this.