Water for Elephants: A Novel

by Sara Gruen

Hardcover, 2006

Call number




Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (2006), Edition: Roughcut, 335 pages


A novel of star-crossed lovers, set in the circus world circa 1932. When Jacob Jankowski, recently orphaned and suddenly adrift, jumps onto a passing train, he enters a world of freaks, grifters, and misfits, a second-rate circus struggling to survive during the Great Depression, making one-night stands in town after endless town. A veterinary student who almost earned his degree, Jacob is put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It is there that he meets Marlena, the beautiful young star of the equestrian act, who is married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. He also meets Rosie, an elephant who seems untrainable until he discovers a way to reach her.--From publisher description.

Media reviews

It's a favorite of book clubs and reading groups, and is supposedly rife with parallels between the protagonist, Jacob Jankowski and Jacob, grandson of Abraham, in the Bible. I wish one of you would tell me what they are. They are not obvious to me, other than a cryptic "Jacob's ladder" parallel to the ladder on the train cars that give access to the roof and that will be important late in the story. What is obvious to me is this is a book about memory, something elephants are famous for and something humans are famous for treating as reliable when it isn't.
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At its finest, "Water for Elephants" resembles stealth hits like "The Giant's House," by Elizabeth McCracken, or "The Lovely Bones," by Alice Sebold, books that combine outrageously whimsical premises with crowd-pleasing romanticism. But Gruen's prose is merely serviceable, and she hurtles through cataclysmic events, overstuffing her whiplash narrative with drama (there's an animal stampede, two murders and countless fights).
What goes on under the big top is nothing compared with the show backstage.

User reviews

LibraryThing member davidabrams
Does anyone still dream of running away with the circus? Is there a young boy somewhere fed up with the unreasonable demands of school, parents and adolescent society and longs to leave all that behind for the sawdust and sequins of the three-ring extravaganza?

Perhaps a better question would be, is there still a circus to run away to?

Yes, I know that, technically-speaking, circuses still exist. You see them every now and then pulling into town with a caravan of semi-trucks, setting up Somewhat-Big Tops in the parking lot of your neighborhood Wal-Mart, parading around a few moth-eaten camels and elephants while trying to sell you a six-dollar bag of cotton candy (a bag, fer cryin’ out loud!). If you’re lucky, you might get a “Hungarian sword swallower” (who actually hails from Teaneck, N.J.) and your kids will go home happy that they’ve actually seen an actual living, breathing clown.

But you can bet there will be some grandparents who grumble in the car all the way home, “You call that a circus? Feh! They don’t make them like they used to, I tell ya!”

Indeed, the Golden Age of Circuses is now just a dusty footnote in our social history. Soon, there will nobody who remembers the menageries which traveled across the nation by train, unloading at small towns with the hoopla reserved for presidents and movie stars, parading through the streets with elephants, lions, trapeze artists, clowns, fat ladies, bearded ladies, midgets, and Siamese twins. Gone are the ringmasters with top hats and booming operatic voices which beckoned, in Pied Piper fashion, young and old to come see the show at the outskirts of town.

Those days may be gone, but you can still get a taste of what they were like in the pages of Sara Gruen’s novel Water for Elephants.

Set in 1931, the story envelopes us in the world of a second-rate traveling circus, the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, as it travels from town to town, setting up its tents with muscular speed and precision, then pulling up stakes almost before the last note of the calliope’s finale has faded.

In a sense, we join the circus along with the main character, twenty-three-year-old Jacob Jankowski, who is just about to graduate from Cornell’s veterinary program when he learns that his parents have been killed in an auto accident. The devastated Jacob hops a train and discovers he’s landed in the lap of the freaks and geeks of the Benzini Brothers.

The circus’ owner, Uncle Al, hires him on as the show’s vet and Jacob soon finds himself tending to giraffes and chimps while learning about the strict hierarchy of circus society (lines are sharply drawn between performers and workers and ne’er the twain shall meet) and the distinct vernacular of circus folk (a “First of May” is a greenhorn like Jacob; to “redlight” someone is to toss them off a moving train, a fate which happens to several washed-up circus performers).

Jacob also finds himself falling in love with Marlena, the star of the equestrian act, who is married to the temperamental August, the show’s animal trainer. Gruen uses the love triangle as the novel’s fulcrum and throws in a fourth character, Rosie the elephant (“an enormous beast the color of storm clouds”), who will eventually play an important role in the outcome of the affair between Jacob and Marlena. Without giving anything away, I can tell you that Rosie’s behavior stretches credibility, though in an author’s note at the end Gruen cites historical precedents for the denouement.

Silly climax notwithstanding, Water for Elephants is riddled with other problems which distract the reader from an otherwise atmospheric story about a slice of vanished Americana. Characters and dialogue come at us in clumsily-handled scenes which often feel like they’ve been lifted from movie clichés. If you’ve ever seen The Greatest Show on Earth, Disney’s Toby Tyler or an episode of HBO’s Carnivale, you’ll recognize some of the stale sawdust littering the pages.

Not all of the glop is confined to the bottom of the animal cages. Here, for instance, is a post-coital scene that turns characters’ moans into readers’ groans:

Afterward, she lies nestled against me, her hair tickling my face. I stroke her lightly, memorizing her body. I want her to melt into me, like butter on toast. I want to absorb her and walk around for the rest of my days with her encased in my skin.

It’s a shame that Water for Elephants is chained to cliché because there is a genuinely fascinating world painted on the backdrop of these pages. Gruen’s research is impeccable and her enthusiasm for the Golden Age of Circuses is palpable. Unfortunately, once we’re inside the Big Top, the rest of the show is a letdown.
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LibraryThing member msbaba
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is an utter delight. I read a library copy for my book club, but after I finished I promptly ordered three copies: for my father, for a favorite aunt, and for my husband. I had to restrain myself from buying more.

The book is narrated from the point of view of Jacob Jankowski, a ninety-plus year old man living in a nursing home. He is unhappy with everything about his current situation in life. He constantly flails against the every-present reminders that his body has degenerated so that he hardly recognizes himself. He’s become the trouble-making curmudgeon of the facility because his mind is fully alive and has not degenerated along with his body.

When a circus comes to town and sets itself up across the street, one of the old coots living in the same home brags that he used to work in the circus carrying “water for elephants.” This gets Jacob’s ire up. He knows you can’t carry water to elephants. They drink too much! The man is lying. Jacob knows the truth because he really did work in the circus. But those memories are long buried. Now that thoughts of this part of his past are awakened, he starts thinking about those halcyon days of his youth—a time when he learned quickly how to become a man.

Thus the story of Jacob joining the circus when he was 23, during the heart of the Depression, when he had nothing in the world he could call his own except promise, inner strength, and fortitude. The world couldn’t get any tougher for a young man. He learns quickly, and the hard way about many of the most important lessons in life, and he comes away from the experience a remarkably mature, whole, and admirable man.

Two-thirds of the book deals with chapters about Jacob as a young man in the circus. One-third deals with Jacob in the nursing home. It is a proper balance and this construction adds to the tension of the story rather than detracts. You care about this man and root for him in both periods of his life.

There is a marvelous feel-good ending, full of great humanity. When you finish, you are left with optimism and enthusiasm that sticks with you for a long time. I recommend this book highly. It is a book that can be appreciated by all ages; in fact, I think it would make an enjoyable and thought-provoking young adult title—but for those men and women who actually went through the Great Depression, this book is a treasure. Buy it for every one of those beloved survivors that you have in your immediate circle of friends and family. These people want for nothing material. It is hard to buy presents for them. But this book will be greeted by long-lasting appreciation.
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LibraryThing member GBev2009
The most intriguing part of the book is the description of circus life which is, I presume, well researched.

Unfortunately, the circus life envelops a cornball melodrama with paper thin characters (All Marlena seems capable of doing is sobbing and saying, 'Oh, Jacob!' before collapsing into his arms in every scene.) I also don't like the modern nursing home segments. I'm more interested in the circus.

Okay and readable, but not a classic.
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LibraryThing member jolerie
Jacob Jankowski is an old and senile senior who shares with us an unbelievable tale of his time with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a roaming circus filled with wonderful oddities and exotic animals galore. Water for Elephants is a story of unspeakable love, of untold secrets, and ultimately learning that life is meant to be lived as the main spectacle of a glorious headlining show, not some cheap, dingy, forgettable sideshow.

Water for Elephants was a thoroughly engaging and mesmerizing read from the characters to the story itself. Included throughout the book are portrait gems from the archives of the circus world, and that only added to the imageries already saturated in my mind. The story is written from the perspective of Jacob as it flipped back and forth between his time in a nursing home to his vibrant, but dangerous life in the circus, and I found myself caught in his flow of time and space. I've never been to a circus, but like any good book, it was able to transport me to a world that I am a stranger to and in the end leave me feeling like I've always been a part of that world.
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LibraryThing member nobooksnolife
Pluses: This novel is fairly well constructed and well-written (with the exception of a few too many "outrageously long eyelashes" describing the elephant) and the main characters well-drawn. The pace of the plot and the use of flashbacks work. The sensitivity between nursing home resident Jacob and favorite nurse Rosemary is beautifully portrayed, and Jacob's observations in the nursing home seem right on target.

Minuses: (1) Not enough solid background research into the psyche of the lead character (Jacob) as an almost-veterinarian (moreover, he is also son of a veterinarian). There were passages where his feelings for and about animals were almost entirely ignored. In general, there would have been more solid creativity if the author had explored and deepened the relationship of the vet with the animals. I was expecting Jacob to develop a very deep understanding of at least the elephant, leading to a very strong bond, etc. He goes through the motions, but I never believe he really understands the elephant, and this is one of the most important parts of the story. I suspect the author is not an animal lover.

(2) Conversely, too much attention is given the run-of-the-mill sexual awakening and human love story of the main character. I don't mind that it's part of the novel, but I was expecting a deep, enchanting bond between human and animals, which would set the novel apart from the ho-hum. For me, this borders on a Romance Novel, and should be advertised as such.

(3) Information and atmosphere of circus life is too thin and barely holds the story up. There could have been richer texture by beefing up the details about circus life.

Summary: If you happen to have read Waller's -The Bridges of Madison County-(another book that caused a big stir, even though it was basically a romance novel), as well as a perfect gem of a book called -Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe- (Fannie Flagg's masterpiece that was almost as good on film) and if you've read Berger's -Little Big Man- one of the most creative uses of the flashbacks of an very aged man (not so good on film)...put these 3 together and you can imagine what -Water for Elephants- is like.

Better yet, if you haven't read Fried Green Tomatoes or Little Big Man, GO READ THOSE INSTEAD of Water for Elephants. And if you're interested in the circus, I recommend Bruce Feiler's -Under the Big Top-.
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LibraryThing member flouncyninja
Some times I think I'm being contrarian for the sake of being different. A lot of people like something, so I will hate it on principle. I don't think that was totally the case with this one. I went into reading "Water for Elephants" with dread because anything that can be turned into a romance movie with Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson probably wasn't my thing.

--Vague minor spoilers ahoy--

The simple jist of my reaction - I actively disliked the first thir...moreSome times I think I'm being contrarian for the sake of being different. A lot of people like something, so I will hate it on principle. I don't think that was totally the case with this one. I went into reading "Water for Elephants" with dread because anything that can be turned into a romance movie with Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson probably wasn't my thing.

--Vague minor spoilers ahoy--

The simple jist of my reaction - I actively disliked the first third, was bored by most of the second third, and finally became interested in the final third. I think it didn't help that the first third was filled with overtly (and unnecessary, imo) graphic sexual scenes that didn't seem to have much place in the story other than to titillate the reader. It felt very much as though Gruen hadn't found her plot yet and was filling pages with unnecessary events to keep readers around until she could. It made me less inclined to pick the book back up whenever I put it down.

There needed to be more interactions with the animals. Jacob and Marlena were almost only likable when they were with the animals. Most of the story is a trite love triangle set in an interesting time period in an interesting setting, but the "interesting" is left in the background. Instead we get a fawning young man, a Mary Sue, and a cast of cliched characters. The crazy husband is the most interesting character and he only shows up as a raving madman every couple of chapters.

I did, however, like the way it ended. I'm not fond of incredibly elderly narrators. There tends to be an overbearing layer of moroseness to a story being told by an incredibly old narrator, whether the author intended it or not. But I did enjoy how it ended, sort of full circle and with the narrator finally returning "home" as it were.

And my favorite part was the incredible juxtaposition of expectation between the way we see the events in the prologue and how they actually play out towards the end of the story. That was an incredible story telling device. I just wish the rest of the book lived up to the same level of cleverness.
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LibraryThing member 2wonderY
I can't for the life of me understand what is to like about this book. It seemed contrived, with not particularly likeable characters, and rings untrue to the time period depicted.
LibraryThing member moonimal
Loved this book at the start, because of the setup. Old man in a nursing home, fighting with other senile residents about who knows the most about circus life. There are some funny scenes in the beginning with the main character being irate over another man's claims to having been in the circus.

Degrades from that beginning into a love story set in a circus train. I dug the setting, and there was plenty of detail, but the supporting characters were obvious story elements (the sick friend who keeps the main character from running away from the train, etc.) and not to spoil it, but everything works out in the end for the couple.

Too rosy of a story, from the complex beginnings.
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LibraryThing member SqueakyChu
I never liked circuses all that much, but Sara Gruen’s book is certainly vastly different than Toby Tyler or Ten Days with a Circus that I read as a kid. Perhaps that was the last time I read a book about a circus. Given the human cruelty and animal abuse in Water for Elephants, that’s probably why. Nevertheless, I found this book amazingly readable despite its making me squirm at times.

The story opens with a murder, sort of the shadowy kind in which the reader has no understanding of its details. Following this, a 93-year-old man remembers, as a young man, having joined a travelling circus. His story is told in flashbacks with scenes moving from a nursing home back and forth to his circus experiences.

The cast of characters is interesting as well, but I loved none more than the old man himself who constantly wonders about his aging so quickly, his deteriorating body image, and his family’s distancing themselves. Reflecting back on his time at the Benzino Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, he remembers a beautiful, pink-sequined woman performer, a stereotypical “bad guy” circusmaster, a dog with a stumpy tail, and a performing elephant who only understands Polish. These are only the beginning of the book’s cast of characters.

This novel is easy to read and is accompanied by vintage black-and-white circus pictures which more clearly define life in a 1930’s circus. The story flows well and exhorts the reader to move along quickly to see what happens next. Not perfect by any means, as there were some situations which seemed a bit contrived or not entirely realistic, Water for Elephants certainly turned out to be a most engaging read, and a book I would highly recommend to others.
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LibraryThing member jhedlund
This book was amazing. The pace is almost like the circus train itself: it starts chugging forward slowly and then before you know it, you're flying so fast you can barely keep your balance! Gruen's writing is so evocative -- you feel like you are on that train and in those tents. You taste the food, smell the menagerie, hear the sounds and feel the animals and the movement of the train. It's amazing that she could write so vividly about an era in history with which she had no prior knowledge before writing the book.

The only thing I didn't like about it were the scenes involving animal cruelty. I knew they would be there, given the subject matter, but it was still difficult. However, I give Gruen credit for not making them gratuitous. They were important to developing the story line and the characters.

All in all, a great ride!
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LibraryThing member varwenea
I wasn’t expecting much of anything when I started this book. Circus, a love story – the end.

I was thus pleasantly surprised to find quite a bit more in these pages:
Details of the train-based circus life – the business itself and the ranks amongst the owners, performers, workers, and all the ‘nicknames’ – kinkers, patches, etc.
Nuggets around the Great Depression and the Prohibition – and what constitutes as entertainment back then.
Animal treatment – The food, the water, the ‘discipline’. :(
Friends that bond as a Family – the thin line between being a hobo and forming a new family on the circus train
Aging – The physical, the mental, the treatment in a home, the desire to be seen, heard, and be relevant
Of course, there’s a love story too. But to me, it’s eclipsed by so much more that this book offers.

Kudos to the author for doing excellent research in the circus life then, leveraging real life examples to account for Rosie’s tale, based on an elephant named Old Mom who only understood German, and the wonderful pictures with every chapter.

In the end, it’s a simple and fast read, that leaves you satisfied. And may I say – excellent ending! I smiled…, and promptly re-read the Prologue too.

A few nuggets from the book…

Food vs. Women for an old man – made me cracked up a bit:
“Sometimes I think that if I had to choose between an ear of corn or making love to a woman, I’d choose the corn. Not that I wouldn’t love to have a final roll in the hay – I am a man yet, and some things never die – but the thought of those sweet kernels bursting between my teeth sure sets my mouth to watering. It’s fantasy…”

Aging – The Physical:
“Age is a terrible thief. Just when you’re getting the hang of life, it knocks your legs out from under you and stoops your back. It makes you ache and muddies your head…”

Aging – Being Irrelevant, becoming boring to your children and grandchildren:
“My platitudes don’t hold their interest and I can hardly blame them for that. My real stories are all out of date. So what if I can speak firsthand about the Spanish flu, the advent of the automobile, world wars, cold wars, guerrilla wars, and Sputnik – that’s all ancient history now. But what else do I have to offer? Nothing happens to me anymore. That’s the reality of getting old, and I guess that’s really the crux of the matter. I’m not ready to be old yet.”

Love – Moved by this thought, particularly as I had thought of this concept in the past:
“Although there are times I’d give anything to have her back, I’m glad she went first. Losing her was like being cleft down the middle. It was the moment it all ended for me, and I wouldn’t have wanted her to go through that. Being the survivor stinks.”

Respect for Animals + Father and Son – The latter, a common theme amongst many literature, movies, etc.
“There is no question that I am the only thing standing between these animals and the business practices of August and Uncle Al, and what my father would do – what my father would want me to do – is look after them, and I am filled with that absolute and unwavering conviction. No matter what I did last night, I cannot leave these animals. I am their shepherd, their protector. And it’s more than a duty. It’s a covenant with my father.”

The friendship, companionship, reliance, and redefined definition of a family, briefly summed up when they learn of Camel’s fate, from drinking jake:
“When I turn back, Earl, Grady, and Bill are kneeling around Camel. Tears stream down the old man’s face.”

Two broken souls, finding love and comfort in each other, sharing their painful past:
Marlena: “…talks of the pain, grief, and horror of the past 4 years; of learning to cope with being the wife of a man so violent and unpredictable his touch made her skin crawl and of thinking, quite recently, that she’d finally managed to do that. And then finally, of how my appearance had forced her to realize she hadn’t learned to cope at all."
Jacob: “…go on rounds with my father during my teen years and of how proud he was when I was accepted into Cornell……. Old Mr. McPherson running my parents off the side of the bridge, and the bank taking our home, and how I broke down and ran out of the exam hall when all the heads lost their faces."
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LibraryThing member rutalee
This was a fast read. I enjoyed the insider circus info. Absolutely loved the ending.
LibraryThing member cmurph1
This look at life in a second-rate circus during the Great Depression is startling (in terms of all the abuse Jacob experiences) and uplifting (he cares for the downtrodden-animal and human). An excellent historical fiction piece and a fine book to use when discussing characterization and the character's ability to ovecome adversity.… (more)
LibraryThing member FicusFan
The story of a bereft, naive young man about to finish college and become a Vet, who ends us joining the circus on the unexpected, violent death of his parents.

The book is his story told from when it happened (1930s) and in another thread as a 90 to 93 year old man (he can't remember his age) looking back.

It was set during the Depression and Prohibition, and had depictions of life then, circus life, and the treatment and circumstances of the animals.

The writing flows quickly. Its a bit superficial in terms of the story telling, and things get thrown in for padding, with very little explanation or build up. I couldn't tell you the names of many of the characters, nor could I keep them straight when reading. Many were standard cliches. The story devolves into a romance with a woman-in-jeopardy movie of the week theme.

It seemed an idea (old time circus life) in search of a real story. The story was very standard, as though there is stamp or cookie-cutter somewhere with it.

In fact the publisher put a key event at the end of the book into a prolog to hook the reader at the start. It worked, but also backfired, at least for me. Later towards the end, the exact same passage, word for word is also in the book. I felt it was a rip off to use the same passage. Even if it was necessary to be in the story for continuity, the author should have come up with different words or viewpoint in the text.

Not entirely sure the two threads are needed. One the one hand you can look at how the animals were treated in the 30s and then see how a very old man is treated today by his family. He is stuck in a nursing home, and becomes a duty rather than a person or family member. Both groups are dependent on the care, good will and kind hearts of others. Did the hardness of heart in the 30s, work its way from animals to people in the modern day ?

The other use of the 2 threads is the ending which seems to be uplifting and requires an old man to work.

It wasn't terrible. It also tugged the heart, in a manipulative way. But I won't be reading any more of her books
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LibraryThing member Canadian_Down_Under
I read “Water for Elephants” because of all the positive reviews. It seemed like a “can’t miss”. But it did, at least for me.

I found the characters underdeveloped and a bit cartoonish. By that I mean that the good guys seemed to have no real flaws and the bad guy had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I would call this type of story "melodrama" complete with the frightened woman and her evil husband and her brave white knight to come to her aid.

The scenes with the animals were hackneyed. I was also disappointed that it was in these scenes when Jacob had a chance to be the hero but he failed.

Then there was his relationship with Marlena which made no sense to me. There didn’t seem to be any reason to believe that these two people would get together since they had very little contact. There was no romantic tension between them as far as I could see.

What was done pretty well by the author was the scenes with Jacob as an old man. Those rang true and were the most enjoyable scenes in the book. That is until the ludicrous ending.

I think the reason this book was so well received by the public is that it is an “easy” read. There are strange characters and the setting is a circus. That’s enough to keep most people interested.
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LibraryThing member ariebonn
This book is the first, and only one so far, that I have won from participating in a giveaway! I had been wanting to read this one for a long time, so when I received an email to tell me that I won Water for Elephants I was thrilled.

The story is told from two different perspectives, that of 93 year old Jacob, and the same Jacob at the age of 22. In 1931, the young Jacob finds himself unexpectedly joining a traveling circus after a family tragedy leads him to quit school. There he meets Marlena, the equestrian on the show, and as time goes by their affection for each other keeps growing. However Marlena is already married to August, the animal trainer who is a certified paranoid schizophrenic. The time he spends with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth is further complicated due to the struggle circuses everywhere were going through because of the great depression, which made Uncle Al, the ruthless owner of the circus even more difficult to deal with. Now at 93, Jacob cannot grasp the idea that he is getting old and he can't believe this old man's body is his, neither can he accept the fact that he has to live in an assisted living home. One day a visiting circus arrives, and while eagerly waiting for his family to take him to the circus, his memories are triggered and the younger Jacob takes over to tell the story.

Most of the time when I start a book it takes a couple of chapters to actually decide if I am liking it or not, however I liked Water for Elephants from the very start! It was an easy and enjoyable read, and although it might be considered as chick lit this book is very well researched and gives you just enough detail to make you feel like you know what it's all about. The characters just come to life, I loved the young Jacob and Marlena, and felt so bad for the older Jacob. In this book, even the animals are given a personality, especially Rosie the elephant who was definitely a favorite of mine because of the fact that she has more human characteristics than some of the other characters. In the end it turned out to be very moving, with a pleasant surprise included as well. It made me so happy to know that Jacob found a way to be content again.

The book finished with a note and a conversation with Sara Gruen. I really enjoy reading these as it gives you an insight on the author's thoughts, and what was the idea behind the story. In fact I was really impressed to learn that most things in this book are based on real life events. I would have never thought!
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LibraryThing member sopolite
Water for Elephants is the first adult novel I’ve read and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

The story starts off with ninety-three year old Jacob Jankowski recounting his life as a young man training at Cornell to be a veterinarian. He drops everything when his parents die and joins the circus.

Jacob was a very easily liked character. I’d have to say the flash forwards were something I really enjoyed. Gruen’s seamless writing between past and present is breathtaking. Reading the difference between an older Jacob as opposed to a young one was really intriguing. It was interesting to hear him describe how his body has aged from the vital, handsome young man he once was and how he sees himself as this decrepit old man now. It was so sad but quite hysterical at the same time.

I didn’t feel like I connected with Marlena too much. Yes, I liked her as a character, but I had a hard time seeing what Jacob thought was so special about her. A character I had a hard time deciding whether or not I liked, from the moment he was introduced, was August. In the beginning you want to like him when he’s befriending Jacob, but when he starts slipping up and showing that he is really a very cruel man you immediately switch to despising him.

Now Rosie… what can I say about Rosie? She is the cutest elephant ever! I love how Gruen wrote her with such a loveable personality. Well, really how she wrote most of the animals with such great characteristics. Bobo the monkey was also super adorable. Needless to say, something that I had a hard time with while reading this was the animal cruelty. A while back, I read an article from PETA on how elephants – most circus animals, really – are treated and it was just awful. So it was really hard reading it in gruesome detail. But hopefully, it’ll make people realize how circus animals are treated so they can make a stand against it.

Overall, Gruen has created a beautifully written novel. Her vivid descriptions and accurate portrayal of life in the circus during the Depression were captivating. Not once did I feel that the story dragged on and the ending left me satisfied. I also felt that the pictures of the circus at the beginning of the chapters were a nice touch.

I can’t wait to see if I love the movie as much as I loved the book. Rob better not disappoint! ;)
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LibraryThing member inurbana
After hearing so much about this book, I decided to cave in and took it along on my summer vacation. Well, it was an easy read, which is usually good for a vacation book, but as soon as I finished it, I realized how many flaws this book has. The plot itself is stagnant - it's a story that's been told many times before, and Gruen does nothing to improve upon it. Rather, I think she regresses a little bit. Regarding the characters, there are no shades of gray there. A character is either good or bad, due to where they are positioned in the plot. People like Marlena, August, and Uncle Al are basically caricatures with no inner life of their own. Because of this, it's hard to care about these people and what happens to them. Lastly, I was very annoyed by the way Gruen presents the elder Jacob. She infantilizes him, which I guess was for comic effect, but I wasn't laughing. I think Water For Elephants would work so much better as a movie or mini-series. Gruen had such a vibrant world to play around in, and I'm disappointed that she chose to approach it with such...staleness. Maybe seeing her story visualized would iron out so many of its problems.… (more)
LibraryThing member Helenliz
Told in the memories of Jacob, who's not quite sure hw old he is, 90 or 93, but at that age, what does the odd year count. He is aware that he's at risk of loosing his marbles, and so clings to his memories of his wife and children. The tale he tells in retrospect is of an incredible 4 months in a young man's life. He is just about to take his final exams as a vet when his parents are involved in an accident and die. He suffers a sort of mntal reaction to this and skips very school and jumps a train. Only this train turns out to be a circus train and he them enters a whole new world. He's taken on as the circus' vet (he's near enough qualified for them). The characters he meets are varied and there is the usual mix of personalities involved. Then there are the animals. Rosie the elephant is the star of the show, and Jacob is nearly as in lover iwth her as the woman who becomes his wife. It's a fantastical ride, but there is a very dark side to the circus, and what happens to some of the people Jacob befrieds beggars belief.
Having said that, it's a fun ride. The opening chapter is more fully explained by the time you get to the last chapter - not quite how it appeared at first glance.
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LibraryThing member jody
Water for Elephants gets its first two stars from me simply for its unique setting. I cannot remember reading a book with a circus theme for at least 40 years! (That puts me back in my junior fiction days.)

Gruen's Author Notes leads me to believe her research is sound, so her prologue is a clever move. Grap them early with inside, enticing information, just not too much of it. And there you have it, your reader is taken in. But will they stay there?

Well, Jacob's character is a little too one dimensional for me. In fact, old Jacob in the nursing home out shines young Jacob by a long shot, and I feel we did not see enough of this major character develop within the story. My imagination has him hitting his peak five years later with Ringling Bros, feeling a little cheated that I was not there to wittness it.

Oh well, so be it, I'll read on. Finally the promised pachyderm appears ... Rosie, probably the most intelligent character in the whole book! She's beautiful, but she needed more time to develop and for us to connect with her and her plight. In my view Gruen gave to much to the humans in this story and not enough spotlight to the cages and chains. I kept expecting Jacob to brush off all the foolery that surrounded the workers, roustabouts and performs and find some solace with the beasts. As for his romance with Marlena, and her struggle with August and his totally balistic mood swings, well, I can find those anywhere in fiction and they got in the way of what could have been a completely original spin on animal/human interplay.

As is, the story has spawned a movie, so who am I to critise? I won't be rushing to the theatre, but it could be interesting to see what they have created.

One last point ... I read this as an e-book and found multiple errors in the text (looked to be conversion issues), so as a proofreader and editor I found this extremely distracting. E-books are here to stay, so I hope publishers sort these problems out.
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LibraryThing member karieh
For the past few months, I seem to have only been reading thought provoking books. Some were illuminating, some were disturbing, some made me think about some of my most deeply held beliefs. All in all - I am very glad I read these books, but as I started into "Water for Elephants", I realized that it had been quite a while since I read a book mainly to find out what happens at the end.

My dad recommended this book - and I'm glad he did. It's a wonderful story. We experience, along with the main character Jacob, two parts of his life. We travel through the Great Depression with him after he runs away and joins the circus (!) and we also see his current life as a patient/resident of an assisted living center. Both times of his life were interesting to me. I know next to nothing about circuses - yet I could almost smell the sawdust and hear the music as I made my way through this tale.

Gruen has filled her story with the colorful characters one would expect from a circus troupe. Beautiful acrobats, tortured clowns, animals with personalities almost as big as their trainers (and sometimes bigger!). The details are excellently woven in, letting the reader see just enough without blocking one's imagination. As the story builds towards the climax - I found myself doubting the ending I had been sure would take place. Gruen creates just enough tension and suspense to keep the reader turning the pages at a brisk pace.

I enjoyed, too, the scenes of Jacob in the present day. All circus aspects aside, the book has some excellent insight into a man who feels as if he has outlived his life...without becoming a man who was finished with living. His fears of losing his memories and mind, the despair he feels at the sameness of each day, and the appreciation he has for the few delights left in his day to day existence are beautifully crafted. He may come across as a crotchety old man at times, but the reader, and a few characters whose eyes still see a man instead of an old man, know that not to be true.

"Water for Elephants" was a very enjoyable story. It was an interesting and fun book - well researched and well-written. While I didn't take many notes while reading, it was not for lack of content, but because I didn't want to miss a minute of the story.
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LibraryThing member Kevin.Wilkins
"Great book, spectacular audiobook interpretation!"

"Age is a terrible thief. Just when you're getting the hang of life, it knocks your legs out from under you and stoops your back. It makes you ache and muddies your head and silently spreads cancer throughout your spouse." Jacob Jankowski (at 90 or 93)

Thought provokingly raw observations like this, artfully crafted and woven together by author Sara Gruen, and compellingly interpreted by co-narrators John Randolph Jones and David LeDoux are the reason this book continues to receive 5-star reviews nearly six years since its debut in audiobook format. To be honest, I’m sometimes wary of books that become the subject of the kind of cultish adoration that this one seemed to have garnered. But, finding myself in the mood for something completely different, I decided to roll the dice on “Water for Elephants”.

I am very glad I went with my gut on this one. As a man of slightly-more-than middle age, the elder Jacob’s vivid and poignant internal monologue really got me thinking about the consequences of advancing years that await us all in one form or another. I vowed to be more appreciative of the here and now. The backbone of the storytelling contained in “Elephants” however is directly attributable LeDoux’s masterful characterizations. Taken with his narration of Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom”, I confess that his credit on this title tipped the scales for me.

I made a point of reading many of the 1 and 2 star reviews on Audible.com's website. I have to say that it seems as though most of them had not given the book a fair chance before rushing to judgement. That said -- to each their own. As for me, I highly recommend this novel on audiobook.
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LibraryThing member kristin8881
Water for Elephants was disappointing. The writing was so-so. It wasn't so terrible that is was distracting, but it wasn't fabulous either. There was something about the dialog in particular that didn't seem right, like Gruen was unable to capture something inherent in conversation...what exactly it was I couldn't say. Like dialog in a movie or drama in which the actors can't act...it's forced or unnatural. I wanted to be moved by this book, and there where moments where I felt like I could almost cry...I was to that point of emotional involvement, and then...let down. The point would be dropped, or undeveloped, or the dialog would get in the way. Damn, almost had me there. And there were themes that could have been developed further, backgrounds better explained, which would have given more depth to the characters. For example, what was the deal with Camel and his family? It was mentioned that it had something to do with his soldiering in WWI, but what exactly happened?

And Walter... I really wanted to hear about Walter's experience as a dwarf during those times, and at the circus. A cousin of mine, Faye, was also a dwarf during the depression, and the circus had tried to buy her too, but her parents wouldn't sell her. Her life would have been Walter's life. I never got a chance to talk to her about her experience during those times (she died earlier this year), and I felt that Gruen had a chance to tell a little bit of that story in Water for Elephants (and the lives of the other performers and workers) but she simply left it out. I mean, come on - Walter, Camel and Jacob are in that car for how many countless hours and it's never discussed?)...this was to the detriment of my ability to relate to or be invested in the characters.

One point of the novel really annoyed me. August, the "equestrian director" is subject to bouts of extreme violence, creulty and jealousy. Rather than just accepting this as part of his personality, or that he is an abusive person, end of story, Gruen feels the need to characterize him, explicitly, as a paranoid schizophrenic. However, none of the symptoms that August exhibits are symptoms of schizophrenia. An unmedicated schizophrenic simply could not have functioned in August's capacity. Perhaps there is a case to be made that he had disasociative disorder (aka multiple personalities), but he was certainly not schizophrenic. It seems clear that he must have been diagnosed as such (pg 265), and if he was, I doubt he would have continued in his important capacity at the circus - it wouldn't have been simply 'worked around,' he would have been institutionalized...this is besides the fact that Marlena describes August as being "glamorous in the way only an equestrian director can be." (pg 222) Really? I never imagined equestrian directors as glamorous...but maybe I've never met the right one?

There seems to be some controversy on the internet regarding whether it was Marlena who killed August instead of Rosie. I don't understand where this comes from. On page 326, Jacob states the following: "I was nevery entirely sure whether Marlena knew - there was so much going on in the menagerie at that moment, that I have no idea what she saw...Rosie may have been the one who killed August, but I also wanted him dead." What could be more obvious?

New York Times reviewer Elizabeth Judd characterizes Water for Elephants in the following way: "Gruen's prose is merely serviceable, and she hurtles through cataclysmic events, overstuffing her whiplash narrative with drama (there's an animal stampede, two murders and countless fights). She also asserts a grand passion between Jacob and Marlena that's never convincingly demonstrated."

Cleveland Plain Dealer reviewer, Karen Long wrote that Gruen batters readers "with barely servicable, primary-color prose, full of sobbing, shrieking, fighting, boozing and whoring that comes off at the clip of an exaggerated Saturday-morning cartoon." While there has been a lot of enthusiasm and praise for this book, I tend to agree with Judd and Long on this one. It just wasn't that great.
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LibraryThing member PriscillaM
What a great book! Water for Elephants caught my interest from the very first page. It is set in two alternating times, the present when Jacob is an irritable frail old man and the past when he is in his early twenties.when flight and chance find him joining a travelling circus, with its curious mix of beauties, freaks, bullies and animals. Life on a Circus train is none too genteel especially with the likes of Barbara (the stripper)and a dwarf who reads Shakespeare (or does he?) , the beautiful Marlene and of course, Rosie, the elephant who would do anything for a drink. Sara Gruens portrayal of Jacob as an old man is brilliant . I loved him, cross and all as he was. The story is at times brutal and graphic and even the notes at the end are well worth reading. Great satisfying story.… (more)
LibraryThing member DrRex
I like the voice of a 93-year-old reflecting back on his life. At the same time it is an a stereotypic and probably accurate look at life in the circus in a bygone era and life in a nursing home today




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