For a story about the circus – the magical, dizzying, fluid, fantastical circus – this is a helluva downer. It recounts two parallel narratives in the life of Jacob: first, his youth spent as the runaway amateur veterinarian in a Depression-era circus; second, wasting away in a nursing home.
Old Jacob feels abandoned. He’s losing his physical and mental capacities and the nurses mostly treat him like a child. Surrounded by boring geriatrics, Old Jacob reminisces about his glory days, which aren’t so glorious after all. Young Jacob’s circus teems with unethical practices, from animal abuse to throwing workers off moving trains to avoid paying them. Jacob tries not to get beaten up and stands helplessly looking away from the mistreatment of others.
Enter Gruen’s idea of plot, which is to say, Young Jacob falls in love with the dreadfully dull (but beautiful!) acrobat Marlena, and she with him. Marlena’s violent schizophrenic husband August engages in counter-efforts. The affair lacks a foundation, and made the book less interesting as it progressed. Even the spectacle of the circus’s dramatic dissolution didn’t perk up the tale.
Gruen did an impressive amount of research for this book. The Depression, Prohibition, behind-the-scenes circus antics…all fascinating stuff. But sadly, she didn’t add much value to her source material.
The 214 in 2014 series chronicles every book I read in 2014. Each review contains exactly 214 words, because 2014 words is too long and 2014 characters is too dang short. And yes, this review is backlogged from 2014.
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