Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Jacob starts as a veterinary student near the end of his course, with only his final exams between his degree and the beginning of practice with his father, when he’s summoned from class one day and told that both his parents have died in a car accident. He goes home to the house as they left it the morning of the accident—including the newly painted sign announcing the father-and-son veterinary practice. The lawyer soon tells him everything is mortgaged, that his father had been paid recently only in vegetables and eggs, and that there's nothing left. Shell-shocked, Jacob goes back to Cornell to take his final exams, but when the papers are handed out he cannot do it, hands in his paper without a mark and takes off walking.
He jumps a train. Turns out it’s a circus train, that of a minor spectacular traveling show, and that he’s invited to stay. Turns out to be a fit of sorts. He knows how to treat the animals and they can’t afford a ‘real’ vet so are delighted to welcome the Cornell-educated vet, degree or not. Those who run the show are pretty careless of both human life and dignity—to say nothing of animal life and dignity—and the workers stay because there are no jobs elsewhere. Jacob eventually stays because, like his father, he cares more for the animals than the money, and of course, there’s a girl—and an elephant.
The 93-year old Jacob has had enough of fake food and antidepressants if he complains. His family is not negligent though they do let him down on the day they’ve promised to take him to the circus. He’s forgiving, after all the eldest son, he figures, is 71 himself. I won’t tell you the ending because it’s too good not to experience it for yourself and ties up both strands of the story and all the themes rather nicely. Not the best of fiction for 2005 but I found it worth reading. Maybe especially appealing to those glaring at the end of middle age.