Gruen (Riding Lesson, not reviewed) brings to life the world of a Depression-era traveling circus.
Jacob Jankowski, a retired veterinarian living out his days in an assisted-living facility, drifts in and out of his memories: Only days before graduating from vet school in 1931, young Jake learns his parents have died and left him penniless. Leaving school, he hops a train that happens to belong to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. When the circus’s owner, Uncle Al, learns Jake’s educational background, he quickly hires him as the circus vet. This position allows Jake access to the various strata of circus society, from lowly crewmembers who seldom see actual money in their pay envelopes to the performers and managers who drink champagne and dress in evening wear for dinner. Jake is soon in love, both with Marlena, an equestrienne married to the head animal trainer, August, and with Rosie, an elephant who understands only Polish (which Polish-American Jake conveniently speaks). At first, August and Marlena seem happily married, but Jake soon realizes that August’s charm can quickly turn to cruelty. He is charismatic but bipolar (subtle echoes of Sophie’s Choice). Worse, he beats Rosie, and comes across as having no love for animals. When August assumes Marlena and Jake are fooling around—having acknowledged their feelings, they have allowed themselves only a kiss—he beats Marlena, and she leaves him. Uncle Al tries blackmailing Jake to force him to reunite Marlena with August for the sake of the circus. Jake does not comply, and one fatality leads to another until the final blowup. The leisurely recreation of the circus’s daily routine is lovely and mesmerizing, even if readers have visited this world already in fiction and film, but the plot gradually bogs down in melodrama and disintegrates by its almost saccharine ending.
Despite genuine talent, Gruen misses the mark.