Water for Elephants has two plots going on, both starring the same main character, Jacob. In one plot, Jacob is a young guy just starting out in the world; in the other, he's an old guy stuck at a nursing home. Every few chapters, the narrative switches from one Jacob to the other. Hmmm. This could get confusing. To make sure everything's clear, we're going to lay it all out for you separately. But be warned, this isn't the order of events in the book!
The prologue features a younger version of Jacob, who works at a circus and witnesses a murder. This is already bestseller material.
Just when it's getting exciting, we cut back to Jacob as a young man about to finish his degree at Cornell's veterinary school. Just before he finishes, though, his parents die in an accident and he finds out that he has no job or inheritance. (He was supposed to join his dad's vet practice.) So far, so terrible.
By a happy accident, he ends up getting connected with a circus traveling on a train: the Benzini Brothers, led by a ringmaster named Uncle Al. A friendly drunk named Camel helps get Jacob involved with the circus, taking care of the animals. Seems like a decent gig.
Or not. At the circus, Jacob has to work with a problematic man named August, who's in charge of the most important animal acts, and August's wife, the beautiful Marlena, who's one of the circus stars. Jacob and Marlena are attracted to each other – it wouldn't be a story without a love triangle – but she's off limits. Jacob also runs into a couple other interesting characters, most importantly his roomie, Walter.
The circus travels around and eventually acquires an elephant named Rosie. August has trouble training her and his violent tendencies bubble to the surface. Jacob is able to train Rosie, though, so he works with August to help get her to join the act. In the meantime, Jacob and Marlena's relationship grows stronger, and August becomes jealous.
Meanwhile, Camel becomes incredibly sick, and the group discovers he has jake poisoning, an illness all too common during the Prohibition. Camel can no longer work, which puts him in danger at the circus (that basically means death), so Jacob and Walter hide him and care for him. Nothing is going right for these people.
August becomes progressively more violent, while Marlena and Jacob fall more in love. August accuses them of adultery and beats them both pretty badly. Marlena leaves August, and she and Jacob become closer: they acknowledge their love and finally act on it. Both of their positions at the circus are threatened, especially when they learn that Marlena is pregnant. Scandalous! Plus, the circus is running out of money, which means it will probably kick people out of the group and to their death.
One night, Jacob attempts to kill August but chickens out. While he's off doing that, several people are thrown out of the circus – they are literally thrown off the train. Both Walter and Camel are killed, and Jacob knows he was a target, too. A few of the men who had been thrown out survive, and come back to start an animal riot during a performance. The circus is ruined, and [SPOILER ALERT!] during the ensuing catastrophe (which is discussed in the prologue), Rosie the elephant kills August. We're talking brutal murder here.
Marlena and Jacob are free. They save as many animals as they can (including precious Rosie) and decide to join the Ringling Brothers Circus.
Jacob hates being at the nursing home. He has frightening encounters with nurses, who treat him like some old nut, and he can't stand the other residents of the home, who seem like old nuts to him. To pass the time, he thinks about his life in the circus. He tells us his story and shares part of it with a friendly nurse named Rosemary.
Jacob's son is supposed to visit him and take him to the circus, but he doesn't show up. Not coo, Jacob's son. So Jacob makes a break for it and goes to the circus alone. While he's there, he meets a guy named Charlie, who works for the circus and is refreshingly friendly and respectful.
Our guy tells Charlie his whole life story. He even goes on to explain what happened after the first narrative ended: he and Marlena had several kids, a good run at Ringling, and a fine life. But now that's all in the past.
Finally, even though people from the retirement home are looking for him, Jacob decides to stay with the circus and set out on another adventure.