Jacob Jankowski is an old man in his 90s living out the remainder of his days in a nursing home. His children rarely come to visit, and he’s both lonely and frustrated by nursing home life. But when the circus comes to town one day, it triggers Jacob’s memories of his youth and the years he spent with the Benzini Brothers Greatest Show on Earth. In the 1930s, Jacob was a promising veterinary student who was about to join his father’s practice; but after his parents’ tragic death, the practice had to be sold to pay the family debts. Bereft and with nowhere to go, Jacob hopped a train that turned out to belong to a traveling circus; and because of his veterinary skills, the ruthless circus owner decided to keep him around. At the circus Jacob met a variety of new people, including a sarcastic dwarf, a mercurial animal trainer, and the trainer’s beautiful but trapped wife. Eventually his involvement with the circus would trigger a series of shocking and catastrophic events.
I remember that when this book first came out, a lot of my friends were raving about it, convinced that I’d absolutely love it. Unfortunately, I didn’t have that experience…maybe I’m missing something, but this book just didn’t resonate with me. I really enjoyed the setting; circus life in Depression-era America was fascinating, and I liked the photos of real historical circuses that preceded each chapter. It’s truly amazing to think about the amount of work (and food!) it took to keep the circus going! But I wasn’t that nuts about the plot or characters in this book. The main story is the romance between Jacob and Marlena, a performer who is trapped in an unhappy marriage. But while her menacing husband is an interesting (albeit repulsive), larger-than-life character, Marlena herself seems very bland, with no defining qualities other than her beauty and her misery. I also didn’t find Jacob particularly interesting; he acts like a stock character rather than an individual. Overall, the book is worth reading if you’re interested in the setting, but in my opinion it doesn’t live up to the hype.