This novel does what many novels fail to do: it combines several different, and distinct themes and time periods in a way that is incredibly natural. Jacob Jankowski is the narrator, although he narrates from two very different perspectives, himself at the age of ninety (or ninety-three) and twenty-three. At somewhere over ninety, he is in a nursing home being cared for and condescended to in a way that he does not care for at all. At twenty-three he is own his own for the first time, his parents dead and having run away from his veterinary school exams.
In switching between both points of view, Gruen creates two different worlds, both of which have their own population and vernaculars: the circus and the nursing home. I had never thought of the particulars of a nineteen-thirties circus and found her descriptions to be absolutely fascinating and achingly brutal at times. In particular, the emphasis of the prohibition interested me, simply because I’d never really thought about it before.
Although the plot within Jacob’s circus years can seem a bit contrived at times, particularly the climax scene, it’s not entirely too far-fetched, and a nice love story.
The nursing home scenes open up another world of honesty, and I thought the overall message about treatment of the old, who had once been so independent was brilliant. The foreshadowing and interlocking of the two worlds was also well done.
I listened to this on audio, (audible link: and the narrators were fantastic. They gave Jacob two voices, but at the same time, kept him the same person. I would definitely recommend listening to the book.