Jacob Jankowski is on the verge of completing his education at Cornell University's veterinary school and joining his father in practice when an unexpected change in circumstances finds him literally walking away from it all and joining the circus. It's 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression, and the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth is one of many circuses traveling the country by train. Jacob's veterinary training nabs him a place as caretaker to the menagerie animals, but it's a place that doesn't seem to fit well into the circus' stratified social structure of workers, performers, and bosses. He's given a place to sleep in a partitioned railroad car with the horses and a dwarf clown; he is unofficially "assigned" to share his meals at a table with August and Marlena, the equestrian director and his wife, who performs in the show with ten horses; and he forms friendships with roustabouts and security men.
The fortunes of most of these traveling circuses are uncertain, and when the Benzini Brothers show has the chance to pick up some of the discards of a failed competitor, it gets it first elephant, Rosie, and she brings Jacob, Marlena, and August together in some complicated ways. Jacob recollects this time in flashbacks from his present-day life as a 93-year-old nursing home resident.
Despite the raves this book has received, I was a bit ambivalent about reading it at first, but I enjoyed it more than I expected to. Jacob has a distinctive narrative voice in both his old and younger selves, and even though there are definitely times you can guess where the story is going, it's a great ride getting there. The world of the circus and its people in 1931 is portrayed with both grit and glamour. There are some very memorable (and a few quite unlikable) characters here, not the least of which is Rosie the elephant, and some highly dramatic episodes, which come across as entirely appropriate to the setting. The present-day interludes work well in between the flashback telling of the primary story.
The book is st times simultaneously engaging and off-putting, it's hard to put down, and I found the ending quite satisfying. The photographs of circuses in that era placed throughout the book help in forming a mental picture to go with the story.