Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Book Source: Personal Copy

Synopsis from Publishers Weekly: With its spotlight on elephants, Gruen's romantic page-turner hinges on the human-animal bonds that drove her debut and its sequel (Riding Lessons and Flying Changes)—but without the mass appeal that horses hold. The novel, told in flashback by nonagenarian Jacob Jankowski, recounts the wild and wonderful period he spent with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a traveling circus he joined during the Great Depression. When 23-year-old Jankowski learns that his parents have been killed in a car crash, leaving him penniless, he drops out of Cornell veterinary school and parlays his expertise with animals into a job with the circus, where he cares for a menagerie of exotic creatures. He also falls in love with Marlena, one of the show's star performers—a romance complicated by Marlena's husband, the unbalanced, sadistic circus boss who beats both his wife and the animals Jankowski cares for. Despite her often clichéd prose and the predictability of the story's ending, Gruen skillfully humanizes the midgets, drunks, rubes and freaks who populate her book.

Review: I read Gruen’s book Riding Lessons awhile back and I remembered that I really enjoyed it. So when I heard she had another book out about a circus and that it was being made into a movie, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy! I started this book knowing that it got mixed reviews and some couldn’t even finish the book. However, I heard more good things than bad so I decided I wanted to try it out for myself. Let me just say right here right now that I have no idea why some couldn’t finish this book!

If you are a regular reader of my blog then you know my biggest thing with reading a book is the characterization and believability of those characters. Well I was not disappointed this time! Jacob Jankowski has just lost everything. He’s about to graduate from Cornell Veterinarian School when he finds out his parents have been killed in a tragic car accident. He runs out on his final exams and before he knows it he’s on board a circus train and is working as its vet. He finds himself enamored by the lovely Marlena, the star of the shows Liberty Act! Unfortunately, she’s married to the equestrian trainer, August; a certified paranoid schizophrenic who has random bouts of brutal rages that he takes out on the workers and even the animals. Uncle Al is the boss and owner who only thinks about himself and how he can make his circus better than Ringling Brother and he will do anything to make it happen even if it means throwing “roustabouts” off the train called “red lighting” in order to save a couple of bucks.

This book takes place during the Great Depression Era and there really was not a lot of work to be had at the time. So many people became “drifters” and joined up with a circus show. Back then circuses were transported across the country by train instead of by bus and massive trailers. Gruen did an amazing job researching for this book. When I read in the back of the book how she had never been to a circus before writing Water For Elephants, well let me just say I was flabbergasted! It felt like I was actually at the circus and I could smell both the animals and the circus food. 

Opinion: I absolutely loved this book! It’s definitely one of my favorite books and I can’t wait to see it come to life on the big screen! I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who loves to read. It’s full of romance, adventure, and even a little bit of sadness. I’m glad I didn’t let those mixed reviews prevent me from giving this book a chance.


  1. I've been trying to get hold of a copy of this for a whilr now,i keep reading amazing reviews of it!

  2. I agree that it's the characters that make this novel so endearing and Gruen does a great job with the historical details too. I really hope the movie does it justice!

  3. I absolutely loved this novel. I too felt like I was right there in the action. And the scenes with the older Jacob were just so sad sometimes!

  4. @dolleygurl I agree about the older Jacob scenes being so sad but I really loved the ending!!

  5. It sounds like you loved it as much as I did. I recently read Ape House by Sara Gruen as well. Too bad it wasn't near as good. It's also not historical.

  6. Sara Gruen is an excellent author. I'm glad you enjoyed this book. I just finished her book "Ape House" and thought it was terrific.
    Mike Draper

  7. I just finished the book. I loved it. When I was reading it I felt like everything was happening as if I was in the action.

  8. I read the book afraid that it would turn out to be the dreams or fantasies of an old man who never actually worked for a circus. The ending was sweet and heartening; nothing that transformed the book for me, just something that completed it.