When I was 28 years old, an older friend remarked that by the time you reach 35, you start to accept that some of your dreams will go unfulfilled; she realized she would likely never become a Carnegie Hall concert pianist. It’s the primary reason I started taking my writing seriously the year I turned the mystical groundbreaking age of 40. I didn’t want to be on my deathbed moaning “I wish I had written my novel.”
It’s unpleasant to the realize that as we age, our bodies start to fail, and certain activities become more difficult. I’d always said that I wanted to be one of those 60-year-olds who could run a marathon. One day I realized I would actually have to start training, and do more than talk. It’s not impossible. Only harder.
I’m not opposed to the literary device of an older narrator reflecting on his/her youth. Lately I’ve read quite a few novels in which an end-of-life protagonist tells a present-day story while a younger self in alternating chapters reveals the main plot thread, each narrative informing the other. John Boyne uses this technique to great effect in his 2013 The House of Special Purpose. The title takes its name from the final prison and assassination site of Czar Nicholas and his Royal family. Character Georgy was bodyguard to young heir Alexei, but how Georgy spends the final days of the Russian Revolution, and what he does or doesn’t do at the titular prison is the secret the novel unravels. It’s crafted beautifully, but it’s pure historical fantasy, and readers seeking accuracy should look elsewhere. Despite its fluidity with the truth, it’s a well-written novel about a history-defying love that long remains with the reader.
Sara Gruen’s Water For Elephants had a less compelling narrative. Perhaps it’s because the Prologue reveals the “secret” before the story has even begun. A circus veterinarian and an animal-act showgirl fall in love with the remarkably sensitive and apparently stupid elephant. The tension driving this novel is not what happened but how such a drastic circus-tent murder came to be. Interspersed between the main plot relating Jacob’s flunking-out of veterinary college due to grief over his parents’ unexpected deaths and his subsequent hiring by the Benzini Brothers circus is the present-day narrative of ninety-year-old Jacob’s day-to-day existence in a nursing home.
The nursing home chapters are especially poignant, capturing the horror of an everyday existence with only invalids, incontinents, and screamers as neighbors. (My mother-in-law recently spent three months in a short-term facility while she recovered from a broken ankle, and we can attest that such a facility is excruciating for one who still has their wits.) No wonder old Jacob prefers to dwell on his glamorous circus past.
Gruen’s details about life in a traveling circus are well-researched and fascinating, and heading each chapter are actual photographs of historical circuses. The developing romance between young Jacob and Marlena carries the plot along. Yet I was frustrated by the chapters set in the nursing home: angered by the way our society hides and forgets our elders and disturbed by this accurate fictional portrayal.
More: I was perturbed by the basic premise that once one reaches a certain age, all there is left to do is to wait to die. The “main plot,” the circus plot, was thrilling; the nursing home tale was as dull and mundane as the mushy peas served to the residents.
Until the ending: and the true surprise is not the fleshed-out expanse of the pre-indicated murder.
At the age of ninety-one—or is it ninety-three?—Jacob Jankowski runs away and joins the circus, proving it’s never too late to live a life that gives your great-great-grandchildren something to talk about.
For more information about the photos in Gruen’s book, see the article at Two Roads Books.