The story follows Jacob Jankowski, ninety-three years young and living in a nursing home. He is haunted by memories of his twenty-three-year-old self and the circumstances that dictated he had no choice but to runaway with the circus. That circus being simultaneously the best and worst thing that ever happened to him.
I love circus stories. I’m discovering this, this book being part of that discovery. There’s something, even sans magic or fantasy elements, that is very fantastical about running away with the circus. About Jacob’s story and how his life did a complete one-eighty and resulted in his being swept up in what was an alien world for him. That’s one of the things this book does well, illustrating the ways that being part of that world for Jacob was like traveling to a foreign country, having to learn a new language and new customs.
Another thing I want to emphasize that this book has going for it: a good sense of humor. I think that’s where the whimsy comes through. Gruen isn’t afraid to make fun even during a serious moment, and it gives the book a lightness that is prevalent throughout. No, it isn’t Shakespeare. It doesn’t need to be. It’s a feel good book that does its job: it makes you feel good.
I will say that there is one thing that brought the experience down for me. Unconvincing romance. The entertainment industry has become saturated and infatuated with love at first sight. That’s a romantic notion, I can’t fault them there. What I can fault this book for in particular is that characters have to speak to each other eventually, and these two don’t really. And when they speak, they have to talk about things that make sense of why they love one another. The most that can be said is Jacob suffered from a severe hero complex that made him feel obligated to rescue Marlena at every turn, but otherwise they had little in common that justified their relationship.
The great thing being that the book is not so obsessed with the romance that it doesn’t have more to offer. Rosie the elephant, for instance, was an adorable highlight. Most of the animals were, in fact. Walter and Camel were a couple of my favorite side characters that got a good deal of time devoted to them. August is a pretty interesting villain. Things that make for a balanced book that I personally enjoyed.