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A Circus Tale: 'Water for Elephants'

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. Running off to join the circus is the dream of many children and probably a few adults. It's a life of distant places, fascinating characters, and nonstop adventure.

CHADWICK: Or at least that's the fantasy. The fantastic and grim reality of the Depression-era traveling circus provides the backdrop for the new novel, Water for Elephants. Book critic Veronique deTurenne has this review.

Ms. VERONIQUE DETURENNE (Book Critic): Sarah Gruen sets her story among the freaks and geeks and captive animals of a traveling circus during the Great Depression.

It's a good move. The dingy desperation of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth is a perfect fit for the high opera of Gruen's story telling.

She starts with Jacob, a veterinary student who learns his parents have died in a car crash. Alone and broke, he literally jumps into a new life when he hops a circus train. Jacob becomes the circus vet and the protector of Rosie, the sweet-tempered elephant whose story lies at the heart of the book.

It's the set-up of a terrific secret that Gruen, like a savvy ringmaster, saves for the grand finale. She ratchets up the tension bit by tiny bit, luring us into the weird world of the roustabout and the candy butcher, the fat lady and the cudge(ph) coach. Perhaps unsure of their allure, she packs the action with plenty of fistfights, shouting matches, and even a yak stampede.

"I staggered inside and met a wall of yak," Jacob tells us. "A great expanse of curly-haired chest and churning hooves, of flared red nostrils and spinning eyes."

Things get stickier when Jacob falls for Marlena, the young and lovely star of the equestrian act. Add in Marlena's violent husband and Uncle Al - the owner who has men thrown off the speeding train to lighten the payroll - and there's more than enough action for, well, a three-ring circus.

Vintage circus photos which are scattered throughout the book provide a welcome interlude. The men and women and animals meet our curious gaze from the pages. Their poise and dignity reduce us to the same voyeurs who crowd the Benzini Brothers big top.

Ironically, it's Marlena's husband August, the villain of the piece, who lets us off the hook.

You already know that Marlena's not Romanian royalty, August says. And Lucinda, nowhere near 885 pounds. 400, tops. And you want to know what Uncle Al did when the hippo died? He swapped out her water for formaldehyde and kept on showing her. For two weeks, we traveled with a pickled hippo. The whole thing's illusion, Jacob, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Certainly not in summertime, the season of grand illusion, when a spare hour on a shady lawn can feel like it'll last forever. With Water for Elephants, it will be time well spent.

CHADWICK: The book is Sarah Gruen's Water for Elephants. Our reviewer is Los Angeles writer Veronique deTurenne. And for more summer reading suggestions, just go to our Web site, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.