OK, story. Jacob Jankowski is about to finish veterinary school when he finds out his parents are dead, and whoops, the mortgage they took out to pay for his education means he doesn’t have a home or a penny to his name. He logically hops on a random train passing by, and the circus shenanigans begin, with 93-year-old Jacob narrating from his nursing home. Young Jacob sees a performer, Marlena, being all pretty and sparkly, and of course falls in fucking love without even talking to her. And of course he wants to save her from August, her horrendous fucking bastard husband and his new boss. When he’s not being generous and charming, he goes into rages, beating people and animals alike. The head of the circus, Uncle Al, casually diagnoses him with “paragon schizophrenia.” Uncle Al is also a horrendous fucking bastard. He doesn’t put a high premium on either paying his workers or making sure they don’t get dumped from the train while crossing a trestle. He also doesn’t care if his animals have to go hungry temporarily, eat rotten food, or endure the aforementioned beatings of August.
Cruelty to animals is a litmus test here. Mean to animals? Villain. Nice to animals? Good. In fact, most of the animals are conflated with humans-they’re described as having human personalities, facial expressions, reactions, motives, etc. I guess I need to congratulate Gruen on that aspect, seeing as how Rosie the elephant was my favorite character, but it’s very possible that I simply have a giant weak spot for animal characters.
*I’m not one for love stories (ex: holy shit The Notebook was so fucking boring, why did people keep telling me it was better than a typical romance film?), so maybe I’m not the best person to judge, but Jacob and Marlena… I never completely understood or cared about them together. I accepted it because I had to, but he falls in love just because she’s purty, and she later admits that she’s been in love with him since the first time they met, which, ugh. It’s not based on anything substantial. And then they have sex, which, also ugh.
She presses a kiss into each palm and then places my hands on her breasts.
“Touch me, Jacob.”
When she undoes my trousers and takes me in her hand, I pull away.
“Please,” I gasp, my voice cracking. “Please. Let me be inside you.”
Somehow, we make it to the bed. When I finally sink into her, I cry out.
Yeahhh… Did not need that.
*The paragraphs with elderly Jacob were eh. I get why she framed the story that way-it creates a nice parallel, with him going from taking care of animals and an old man to being taken care of himself, but nothing happens, especially compared to all the excitement that takes place in the past. Thankfully these sections were relatively brief and infrequent.
*Probably the smartest thing Gruen did was put the murder in the prologue, because it creates an ever-present sense of tension. You’re always wondering what finally sets off the sequined female and who the unnamed man is, and it gives a sense of purpose to the story. I have a feeling that I would’ve been wondering what the point was otherwise, or else I would’ve thought it was a straightforward love story with an unusual backdrop and been turned off.
*The parts I enjoyed the most had nothing to do with Jacob, Marlena, and August, but with Rosie and the other animals, the pickled hippo, the parade for the deceased fat lady: usually nothing more than interesting diversions. I finished the book in the middle of a subway ride, so I continued on to the author’s notes, and guess what? All of my favorite details were true anecdotes Gruen came across in her research. That makes me want to find a good nonfiction book about old-timey circuses, because they seem fascinating.
*I felt some of the deaths were unnecessary, like Gruen was throwing in as much emotionally painful stuff as possible, just cuz.
*I thought the climax in the past was clever, and although I rolled my eyes at the second ending, I also went “aww” a little.
*The writing was decent, but in over 300 pages no one line made me stop and go “damn, that’s good.”
*Young Jacob occasionally mentions how he’s done horrible things that will send him to hell, but if coveting your boss’s wife and drunkenly vomiting on a prostitute is all it takes to send someone to hell, we’re all screwed.
And yes, there is a book #8 that I haven't written up yet. I'll get to it tomorrow. Right after my book #2. ::coughcough::