The book begins with Jacob Jankowski, a veterinary student at Cornell, discovering that his parents have been killed in a car accident. Distraught, he jumps aboard a train that unknow to him is carrying the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth - a circus in need of a doctor. His work draws him into the circle of August, the circus's maniac menagerie director, and his beautiful wife, Marlena, whose equestrian act is one of the star attractions of the circus.
As, Jacob immerses himself in the bizarre world of acrobats, aerialists, sword swallowers, little people among others, he begins to experience the rigid caste system that exists in the circus. As the troupe crisscrosses the country cannibalizing acts that have gone bankrupt in the Depression-era economy, Uncle Al, the autocratic ringmaster, purchases Rosie, an elephant to be a star in the show so that they can compete with Ringling Brother's, who are the most famous circus troupe. However, with Rosie who has an unquenchable thirst for lemonade and the inability to follow the simplest command, Benzini Brothers looks doomed.
How Jacob coaxes Rosie to perform, thereby saving the circus and becoming part of the elite group and its own repercussions - is the crux of the novel.
Gruen does an amazing job at describing the circus... its reminds me of the old black and white pictures of circus with all its pretention. She relates the circus hierarchy beautifully. Where she falters a little, is in the characterisation of the lead players. I do not completely buy the love Jacob and Marlene share... something about it, feels to convenient.
I do however love how Gruen potrays old Jacob, the way he says I am 90 or 93... The little things he says and does, are very apt for a person that old and who has "lived" his life.
It is definitely not the best book I have read, it's not even close. It took some time for me to finish too... but I am happy that I read it. Was a great way of looking at the circus and at the depression era.