Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants

Winner of the 2007 BookBrowse Award for Most Popular Book.An atmospheric, gritty, and compelling novel of star-crossed lovers, set in the circus world circa 1932, by the bestselling author of Riding Lessons. When Jacob Jankowski, recently orphaned and suddenly adrift, jumps onto a passing train, he enters a world of freaks, drifters, and misfits, a second-rate circus strug...

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Title:Water for Elephants
Author:Sara Gruen
Rating:
Edition Language:English

Water for Elephants Reviews

  • Sammy

    SPOILERS IN MY REVIEW! I'M SORRY ABOUT SPOILING IT FOR PEOPLE, REALLY I AM, IT WAS NEVER INTENTIONAL. BUT AS WITH ALL REVIEWS (ESPECIALLY MINE) THERE ARE GOING TO BE SPOILERS. I DELETED ALL THE COMMENTS THAT WERE HARASSING ME ABOUT ACCIDENTLY SPOILING THE BOOK. SERIOUSLY, I'M SORRY, BUT PEOPLE DON'T NEED TO BE COMPLETE AND UTTER ASSHOLES ABOUT IT. NOT EVERYONE, TO THOSE OF YOU WHO WERE NICE, I REALLY AM SORRY THAT I SPOILED THE BOOK. I FORGET THAT GOODREADS DOESN'T HAVE A WAY OF HIDING SPOILERS.

    SPOILERS IN MY REVIEW! I'M SORRY ABOUT SPOILING IT FOR PEOPLE, REALLY I AM, IT WAS NEVER INTENTIONAL. BUT AS WITH ALL REVIEWS (ESPECIALLY MINE) THERE ARE GOING TO BE SPOILERS. I DELETED ALL THE COMMENTS THAT WERE HARASSING ME ABOUT ACCIDENTLY SPOILING THE BOOK. SERIOUSLY, I'M SORRY, BUT PEOPLE DON'T NEED TO BE COMPLETE AND UTTER ASSHOLES ABOUT IT. NOT EVERYONE, TO THOSE OF YOU WHO WERE NICE, I REALLY AM SORRY THAT I SPOILED THE BOOK. I FORGET THAT GOODREADS DOESN'T HAVE A WAY OF HIDING SPOILERS... THEY SHOULD. IF I COULD GIVE YOU A COOKIE TO MAKEUP FOR THE FACT THAT I GAVE AWAY SOME STUFF. GOOD READS OBVIOUSLY DELETED MY FIRST REVIEW, BUT THIS IS THE SAME EXACT THING I HAD WRITTEN BEFORE... SO ONCE AGAIN, DON'T READ THE NON-CAPSLOCKED STUFF BELOW THIS BECAUSE IT DOES CONTAIN SPOILERS. SO IF YOU LEAVE ME A COMMENT THIS TIME AROUND BITCHING ABOUT SPOILERS YOU ONLY HAVE YOURSELF TO BITCH AT BECAUSE I FRIGGIN' WARNED YOU. AND JUST FOR THE RECORD: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!

    I could not put this book down. I disagree with the statement that the ending was predictable. On the contrary I was pleasantly surprised that Jacob and Marlena ended up together because I thought the book was going to follow the format of those "never meant to be" loves. You know, where they hook up, yearn for each other, but can't grow old together.

    I think the biggest disappointment I had with the book was Marlena's relative weakness. I think I would have loved the book even more had she been written as a stronger woman. Though I think her nature reflected that of most women back in the 30s. Still, I got annoyed by the frequent crying she did. I was proud of her for standing up to August in the end. Even so, Marlena's weakness didn't stop me from loving the book.

    What drew me in the most was our flash forwards to 93-year-old (or is it 90?) Jacob. With the exception of his grouchiness everything about him reminded me of my grandfather, who past away last Thanksgiving at 97. It was the fact that he was failing physically but was holding on strong mentally that kept making me think of this man I admired so much. Also, Jacob's undying love for his wife was extremely remeniscent of my grandfather's relationship with my grandmother. If you have elderly loved ones this is just another reason for you to pick up this book. It will probably make you want to call up said loved one and talk to them about their past and their memories. Hopefully it will also strike a note to those who have ignored/forgotten/set aside their loved ones for so long, as Jacob's family has done with him.

    Animal lovers beware with this book. As much as Jacob loves and has a passion for the animals he cares for, there is also a lot of animal abuse that takes place throughout the novel. Being a huge animal rights activist and just all around animal lover, I knew that the animals probably weren't going to be treated very well seeing as 70 years ago animals in the circus were only taken care of as long as they were bringing in a profit, even then... But despite having prepared myself, I was still caught of guard often. So just know that upon picking up this book. The happy animal moments do outweigh the cruelty, though, and if you know animal behavior at all you'll find yourself giggling and cheering quite a bit.

    On a final note, this book is being praised as a romance novel, but it's so much more than that. There are so many layers and characters in this book that to shove it in that one exclusive category could turn away a lot of potential readers who will love this book. If you're a lover of animals, the elderly, adventure, circuses, the Great Depression, or even drunks, pick up this book and you'll find yourself hooked.

  • Michele

    When I finished reading

    goose bumps covered my skin. Now this is a good book! Immediately engrossed, I had a hard time putting it down as I read the story of Jacob Jankowski and his reminiscence of days with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth--otherwise known as a train circus in 1930's America.

    A talented writer and storyteller, Sara Gruen takes readers on a bumpy and tense train ride through history. This tale defines Americana. Ther

    When I finished reading

    goose bumps covered my skin. Now this is a good book! Immediately engrossed, I had a hard time putting it down as I read the story of Jacob Jankowski and his reminiscence of days with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth--otherwise known as a train circus in 1930's America.

    A talented writer and storyteller, Sara Gruen takes readers on a bumpy and tense train ride through history. This tale defines Americana. There is no evidence of author here--simply narrator telling the story from Jacob's perspective (is he 91 or 93 years old?). I liked everything about the book, but primarily it was the crafting I liked best about this reading experience.

    Seamlessly, Gruen weaves together the modern day voice of this old man, a Cornell-educated veterinarian, abandoned in a nursing home--a.k.a. assisted living facility--and his memories of three months spent as the accidental veterinarian on a traveling circus. Just before his final exams, he learns his parents have been killed in a car accident and this is what sets the story in motion. Once he hops aboard a train, which he soon learns is a circus train, he falls in love with a pink-sequined performer, Marlena, and battles her schizophrenic husband, August, who happens to be his boss. Jacob, a sensitive and innocent soul, is highly likeable and befriends most of the animals aboard. Most unforgettably is a "Polish" elephant by the name of Rosie. But he also endears himself to his roommate, a dwarf named Walter, and a stowaway named Camel. One can't help but root for Jacob through the entire story. And to my complete delight, it comes to a surprising and very satisfying conclusion.

    This is an excellent novel and I give it my highest recommendation. Well done Sara Gruen!

  • RJ McGill

    Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants is one of those rare novels, that will be read and re-read, discussed and enjoyed for many years, by old and young alike. Destined to be passed between family and friends and back again, until the tattered, time worn pages resemble the books beloved central character and narrator.Jacob Jankowski, just days from the final exams at Cornell University that would have attached the respectable Dr. of Veterinary medicine forever to his name, had his world forever alter

    Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants is one of those rare novels, that will be read and re-read, discussed and enjoyed for many years, by old and young alike. Destined to be passed between family and friends and back again, until the tattered, time worn pages resemble the books beloved central character and narrator.Jacob Jankowski, just days from the final exams at Cornell University that would have attached the respectable Dr. of Veterinary medicine forever to his name, had his world forever altered when his parents were killed in an auto accident. Alone, frightened and penniless, the 23 hopped a train, never intending to “run away with the circus”… although, looking back, as he sat in the nursing home telling his story, it seemed fate didn’t much care about intentions, especially during the depression. It was hard life, the Benzini Brothers Circus, hailed as the Most Spectacular Show On Earth - which of course meant, it wasn’t Ringling and anything that wasn’t Ringling… well, wasn’t Ringling. And so it went, from town to town, day after day — set it up, tear it down - the freaks and geeks, midgets and clowns worked, ate, performed, lived and often died together. The harsh conditions are made even more unbearable at times, by the greedy manager, Uncle Al and his insane animal trainer, August. Yet somehow, in the midst of despair friendships and laughter persevered. Although much of the laughter was alcohol induced, during the height of the depression and prohibition, you took what you could get.

    The narrator’s transition from the young circus vet, to the elderly, cantankerous nursing home resident is a well crafted, bi-lateral view that pulls the reader into this fictional world and never lets go. Whether in his twenties admiring beautiful, equestrian performer, Marlena and caring for the animals he loved so dearly or in his nineties mulling over where to have breakfast and the indignities of old age, the warm, quick wit comes through loud and clear. From the big top to the nursing facility Gruen’s sharp, three dimensional, fictionally fluid characters will have you laughing out loud one minute, mouth agape in sheer terror the next.

    Hurry, hurry, step right up, readers and book lovers everywhere - if you hunger for a reading experience chock full of every conceivable emotion, beautifully written and wholly engrossing, Water for Elephants is a wondrous world, where fact and fiction combine, delivering the most memorable and pleasurable hours, you will be spend with a book. Characters so sharply drawn and wrought with emotion that there nearly flow off the page. Sara Gruen’s depictions of depression era America is as beautiful as it is haunting. From unspeakable cruelty and brutality, to selfless acts of kindness, Water for Elephants not only has it all, but delivers it with unapologetic honesty and genuine heart felt passion. This remains one of my top 5 favorite books.

    Happy Reading!

    -Rj

  • Will Byrnes

    Ladies and gentlemen. Direct your attention to the performer in print. You will be amazed, dazzled and mystified by the daring feats you are about to witness. Well, that might be overstating a bit. The story does open with drama, though. A circus menagerie has gotten loose and there is mayhem. The narrator, Jacob, sees the ringmaster murdered. We then scoot ahead to the present. Jacob is in his 90s and looks back, revisiting his ghosts. From here, we flip back and forth between Jacob in the pres

    Ladies and gentlemen. Direct your attention to the performer in print. You will be amazed, dazzled and mystified by the daring feats you are about to witness. Well, that might be overstating a bit. The story does open with drama, though. A circus menagerie has gotten loose and there is mayhem. The narrator, Jacob, sees the ringmaster murdered. We then scoot ahead to the present. Jacob is in his 90s and looks back, revisiting his ghosts. From here, we flip back and forth between Jacob in the present and his recollections.

    When Jacob is 23, his parents are killed in an auto mishap, leaving him penniless. He drops out of veterinary school, just shy of completion, and when the freight train he hops turns out to be transporting a circus he finds himself in a new life.

    image from The Globe and Mail

    There is unkindness aplenty under the big top. An evil owner, Uncle Al, Blackie the enforcer, August, the mood-challenged and abusive supervisor of animals, and husband of Marlena, who performs with horses, and with whom Jacob is smitten. But for every cruelty there is kindness. Jacob is helped by the elderly alcoholic, Camel, when he is newly on the bum and Jacob later returns the favor. A grumpy dwarf named Walter shows a kinder side, in time.

    What is real and what is an illusion? Gruen offers us a major sleight of hand that I will not write of here. But there are sundry references throughout the book. A circus, per se, is involved in the business of illusion. There is a wonderful image here of a hippo being paraded through town, even though it has already gone to meet its maker. Some relationships in the story are based on illusion as well.

    But the core items here are Jacob’s love for the married Marlena, and the behavior of a newly acquired elephant, who may not be as dumb as she at first appears. While both tales are engaging, I did find the pacing to be somewhat slow. Thankfully, this is a very fast read. I know, that sounds contradictory, but one can flip through the pages quickly while waiting for something to happen. Gruen does a nice job of making her characters real, a wonderful gift.

    I have no idea if Gruen had any intention of making political observations, but here are a few things one might see in her work. One gruesome practice engaged in by Uncle Al and his thugs is

    , or tossing employees from a moving train. Think of it as a pink slip on steroids. In the Depression era of the story, as in ours, there are plenty who would be more than happy to toss those of us on the lower echelon, let alone their mamas, from a moving train. Is Uncle Al the ultimate Republican? Class comes in for a look. The roustabouts, the working men, are treated far differently from the performers and from management. The class system is sealed in place. When times are tough, for instance, performers and managers are paid, but the roustabouts are often stiffed. I know that reminds

    of soaring corporate profits while unemployment remains high. When one is physically damaged, management does its best to either dump the unwell, or find some darker use for them. Caring for the sick is clearly not something that is done here, at least not for the workers. Housing is distributed somewhat unequally as well.

    You have to figure that any story featuring a character named Jacob should have a ladder, and indeed there are a few, but I did not see any particular heavenly references there. And if one is looking for classical cues, one might find that in Genesis 25:27 the biblical Jacob is a “dweller in tents.” Ok, it’s not much. Is there a parallel with the story of that earlier Jacob? Maybe, but if so it did not really jump out at me.

    While Water for Elephants may not be the greatest book on earth, it is a very engaging and entertaining page turner. I would not confuse this with books with great literary ambition. It is what it is, a darned good read, and that is good enough to perform in the center ring.

    PS - I suggest you take a peek at the review by GR pal,

    . He has a much better handle on the whole biblical reference thing, and some nice non-biblical insights beyond.

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    Links to the author’s

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    pages

  • Catriona (LittleBookOwl)

    Oh man, this was lovely.

  • Nataliya

    I picked up

    after seeing the movie. You know, the one with "that

    guy" - who for a change was allowed to smile. And to have other facial expressions besides

    . The math is simple:

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    after seeing the movie. You know, the one with "that

    guy" - who for a change was allowed to smile. And to have other facial expressions besides

    . The math is simple:

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  • Rachel

    I think I expected too much out of this novel and therefore had room only for disappointment. Though I finished the book in its entirety, I wrote a short review on my blog about halfway through, expounding on the aspects of the book that irritated me. I have adapted it herein.

    First, the main "heroine," Marlena, is incredibly flat & boring. The narrator/main character, Jacob, is clearly infatuated with her, but I'm not sure why other than she looks good in pink sequins. She's married to her a

    I think I expected too much out of this novel and therefore had room only for disappointment. Though I finished the book in its entirety, I wrote a short review on my blog about halfway through, expounding on the aspects of the book that irritated me. I have adapted it herein.

    First, the main "heroine," Marlena, is incredibly flat & boring. The narrator/main character, Jacob, is clearly infatuated with her, but I'm not sure why other than she looks good in pink sequins. She's married to her arrogant, bipolar boss, so maybe there's some sort of damsel-in-distress complex triggered in our hero. Regardless, I don't care about her. She doesn't engage me or hold any allure. The novel really ends up being more of a romance tale, and to be honest I think it would be just as interesting (more so?) without Marlena.

    There were several instances of explicit sexual encounters fairly close together in the heart of the novel that annoyed me. I don't inherently react against books with sex, but I do object to explicit, gratuitous sex. It felt more for shock value than actually relevant to the plot or characterization. The instances of it are over-the-top and some even slightly grotesque to the point of distraction. I'm not sure what exactly she was trying to prove ("Look, I can write like a man: men think about sex all the time!"), but it was unnecessary. The crudeness calmed down after a bit, but it distracted me through the center of the novel.

    Furthermore, I'm not even sure the narrator is believable/realistic. It takes him too long to figure things out; he likes to describe a scene in excruciating detail before he "realizes what's going on." If I had been standing next to him, by the time he "realizes what's going on," I would have smacked him over the head and left. Too often he encounters situations in a total stupor. OK, so people don't always react instantaneously. But when you describe it in exhaustive detail, it doesn't make me think something is

    quickly. (Speaking of descriptions, every strong smell is described as "overwhelming." Really, is that the best adjective you've got?) Additionally, I can't quite reconcile the young Jacob to the 90/93-year-old Jacob. A lot can change in 70 years, but I can't see the sensitive, humble Jacob I meet in large stretches of the novel with the bitter, crotchety old Jacob I meet in shorter excerpts. Maybe some more explanation of what caused the change would have helped.

    The story has so much potential in its unique setting: Depression/Prohibition-era traveling circus. This alone kept me reading because I was curious at least to see where the narration was going. Will it end with Jacob's death or something else? How long does he stay on the circus, etc? So I guess kudos to the author for that: at least the uniqueness of the setting & atmosphere keeps me intrigued.

    Maybe I expected too much. Still, I give the book credit: despite my disappointment, I was curious to the end.

  • Rachel M.

    * * REVIEW CONTAINS SLIGHT SPOILERS * *

    I really wanted to like this book. I think my low opinion is partially my fault, because I drove into the story with high expectations due to rave reviews. I need to learn not to do that.

    The beginning of this novel was excellent. A Ivy League dropout, who formerly studied to be a

    , runs away and joins the circus. The time period? The Depression and Prohibition America - a historical era of uncertainty and chaos. I was looking for an intriguing tale of a

    * * REVIEW CONTAINS SLIGHT SPOILERS * *

    I really wanted to like this book. I think my low opinion is partially my fault, because I drove into the story with high expectations due to rave reviews. I need to learn not to do that.

    The beginning of this novel was excellent. A Ivy League dropout, who formerly studied to be a

    , runs away and joins the circus. The time period? The Depression and Prohibition America - a historical era of uncertainty and chaos. I was looking for an intriguing tale of a college youth thrust into an unfamiliar world, along with a dose of touching animal stories. What I got was a romance. Pure and simple.

    A major issue in this novel is the characterization. The characters, with the exception of Walter (aka Kinko) and his dear Queenie, were flat and predictable. Marlena and August bothered me the most - Marlena being beautiful and kind and boring, and August being a cruel husband due to his mental illness. Besides the hackneyed stereotype of the mentally ill being violent, August's schizophrenia appeared to be a plot device to bring Jacob and Marlena together without making them look like bad people for cheating. I didn't buy it for half a second. I think the affair would've been much more interesting if August was...well, basically a normal husband who was maybe a little too obsessed with his own accomplishments.

    The romance between Jacob and Marlena made me yawn. While Jacob was a fairly developed character, Marlena was the epitome of a side-female love interest: gorgeous with little beneath the surface. Barbara, the "cooch girl", had more depth than her. If Marlena were developed further (and if she had a flaw or two), I could buy their love story. And hey, maybe one day I'll appreciate where the characters ended up. Today is not that day. On a similar note, I've heard some people complain about the sex scenes, and while the descriptions are a bit odd, I had no problem with there being sex in the book. The setting is a circus, there is booze everywhere, and sex is gonna happen.

    Again - I think I went into this novel with high expectations and if I'm getting the wrong idea or whatever, that's my own doing. I'll probably pick it up again in the future to see if I think differently then.

  • Kevin

    I wanted to like this book. I really did. I even enjoyed the first couple of chapters and was prepared for an entertaining summer read Eventually, however, the lack of imagination, melodrama, and just plain bad writing did it in for me. At the risk of beating a dead horse (albeit a dead horse with tremendous appeal to book clubs across the United States), let me enumerate the problems (spoiler alert – not that I suggest you read this book anyway):

    1. Neither the narrator, nor any of the other cha

    I wanted to like this book. I really did. I even enjoyed the first couple of chapters and was prepared for an entertaining summer read Eventually, however, the lack of imagination, melodrama, and just plain bad writing did it in for me. At the risk of beating a dead horse (albeit a dead horse with tremendous appeal to book clubs across the United States), let me enumerate the problems (spoiler alert – not that I suggest you read this book anyway):

    1. Neither the narrator, nor any of the other characters in

    , for that matter, even remotely sound like they live in the 1930s, nor does the old man sound like an old man in the present-day chapters (in fact, he sounds exactly like he did as a 22-year old in the 1930s chapters). This indicates that the author has either a completely tin ear for a dialogue or not enough imagination to put her self into the minds of her characters.

    2. In the movie version of this book (which surely must the on the way), our narrator Jacob surely must be played by Alan Alda, age difference be damned. He is, without a doubt, the nicest, most sensitive character to appear in any book I have the memory of reading (and I’m counting the Bible). On at least half-a-dozen occasions, he breaks down in tears at the cruel injustice of the world, including becoming comatose for over an hour (yes, over an hour – the author is explicit) after putting down a sick horse – despite being a veterinarian. Perhaps rethinking his line of work is in order.

    3. Melodrama and sentimentality, offered with the utmost sincerity, dominates all the action in the book. Chapters are dotted with multiple fights, murders, stampedes and other calamities, creating not drama but rather a creeping sense of incredulousness in the reader. To illustrate with two examples: At the end of the 1930s storyline, following a deadly stampede in which the villain is murdered (yes, murdered) by an elephant (yes, an elephant), the narrator marries the girl (thus rescuing her from an abusive relationship) and takes from the recently failed circus 12 horses, a dog, a monkey, and an elephant (yes, an elephant!) to live with him and his wife happily ever after. This is not played for laughs. We are meant to be moved by the noble sacrifice, I think. At the end of the present-day storyline, our same narrator, now widowed and without his menagerie, runs off to join the circus (again) and the age of 93, in what has all the makings of a Hallmark movie.

    4. Modern-day, therapy-driven (dare I say “touchy-feely”) sentiment pervades the entire story, especially those parts set in the 1930s. The book teaches (and remember, this is a book meant for adults, not children) such valuable lessons as: treating the elderly with respect is important; racism and antisemitism are wrong; violence against women is wrong; being cruel to animals (or even thinking of them as less important than people) is wrong; all people are important, not matter what there is; little people (dwarfs) have a difficult time in the world and deserve or respect; etc. By keeping her story in bondage to these platitudes, Gruen creates exceptionally one-dimensional characters who either support modern and politically correct values (and thus are good) or don’t (and thus are bad, unless of course they suffers from mental illness and the stings of antisemitism, in which case they are to be pitied). I can’t count the number of times I rolled my eyes, as the narrator, recently orphaned, covered in horse shit, and practically starving during the Great Depression, takes the time to think of those less fortunate. A narrator with a little bit more dirt on his soul would have been much more believable and ultimately more sympathetic.

    N.B. – To continue my rant: The blurb that accompanies this book on the

    bestseller list reads something to the effect “Young man and an elephant save Depression-era circus.” Did the person who wrote that event read the book? The circus collapses into a spasm of chaos and violence at the end of the book.

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