My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I'm a little ashamed to admit that an odd title and the original cover which I didn't really care for stopped me from picking this book up sooner. It was making the rounds in book clubs, magazines, best-seller lists, the net, and anywhere else you might find book recommendations, but I just wasn't getting all the hype. It wasn't until I saw a trailer for the movie adaptation, that my interest was really piqued and I realized it actually was the kind of story I would enjoy.
Once I did pick it up, I was utterly mesmerized. I'm not a fast reader, but I literally inhaled this magical novel. If I had to tear myself away from it, I was still thinking about it and counting down the minutes until I could crack it back open and continue reading. And when I turned the last page, I immediately wanted start it again, I loved it that much. At it's core, this book is a romance, but there is so much more to it than just that. It's a Depression-era travelling circus come to life, complete with some amazing animals, men who just might be evil incarnate, and a cast of endearing characters who make the best of the tough hand life has dealt them.
It begins in the present day with Jacob Jankowski as an elderly nursing home resident. I might be a little biased here since I used to work at a nursing home, but this little old man charmed me from the first minute I met him. He's feisty despite his physical limitations and his enduring, lifelong love for his wife Marlena is touching to witness. There are some blurred lines between right and wrong, since his wife was married to someone else when they met, but once you meet the bastard (pardon my language, I really can't help it in this case!), I think you'll understand why sometimes breaking the rules can be overlooked.
All too often, when a book has a really well done romance, it's hard for other relationships in a story to shine, but that is not the case here. Besides Jacob and Marlena, the relationships between Jacob and Rosie the elephant and between Jacob and his friend Kinko were also amazingly well done. For me, this book is the very definition of a richly developed, plotted, and characterized novel, and I truly applaud Sara Gruen for that. This one will be on my re-read list for life.
I should also note, as such a huge fan of the book, I was a bit disappointed with the movie. I loved the actors they chose, the set was brilliant, and they did a really decent job of capturing the spirit of the book, but I just wanted so much more. But even if you loved the movie, that's all the more reason to read the book because the book is infinitely better!