The greatest show on Earth

Oddly enough, the most persuasive recommendation I received for Water for Elephantsβ€”the circus-themed love story whose movie adaptation stars Reese Witherspoon and sparkly manpire Robert Pattinson himselfβ€”came from a marine. During a visit to NYC in May, a high school friend of mine, only recently back from a year in Afghanistan, was scouring my bookshelves when he stopped on H2OFE and exclaimed his appreciation for it. Granted, one’s standards for entertainment are probably different after a few months of living in a tent surrounded by sand, but I thought it only patriotic to abide by the glowing endorsements of the armed forces. (After just a few minutes of mockery.)

I am, it’s worth noting, probably the last person on the planet to read Water for Elephants. For one, I’ve never been a big fan of historical fiction. But the paperback’s super melodramatic cover also discouraged me from carrying it around on the L train, amid all the New Yorker subscribers and casual readers of ancient philosophy. And mustaches.

Not one to shy from my mistakes, I’ll be the first to admit that Water for Elephants is about as good as my marine friendβ€”and the novel’s bestseller statusβ€”suggest. Set in the 1930s, it follows protagonist Jacob Jankowski who runs away from home to (inadvertently) join the circus. While there, he meets Marlena, the beautiful lady performer (?), who is married to August, the seemingly schizophrenic animal trainer. Jacob obviously falls in love with Marlena, August obviously figures it out, and a fairly predictable narrative ensues, amid a thoroughly researched portrait of circus life in the heyday of Ringling Brothers, when circuses still came to people by train and no one had ever heard of a $14.99 plastic souvenir cup.

Also, there’s an elephant.

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