Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

First line: Only three people were left under the red and white awning of the grease joint: Grady, me and the fry cook.

Why I read this: This was my book club book for July.

Synopsis from Goodreads: Though he may not speak of them, the memories still dwell inside Jacob Jankowski's ninety-something-year-old mind. Memories of himself as a young man, tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Memories of a world filled with freaks and clowns, with wonder and pain and anger and passion; a world with its own narrow, irrational rules, its own way of life, and its own way of death. The world of the circus: to Jacob it was both salvation and a living hell.

Jacob was there because his luck had run out - orphaned and penniless, he had no direction until he landed on this locomotive 'ship of fools'. It was the early part of the Great Depression, and everyone in this third-rate circus was lucky to have any job at all. Marlena, the star of the equestrian act, was there because she fell in love with the wrong man, a handsome circus boss with a wide mean streak. And Rosie the elephant was there because she was the great gray hope, the new act that was going to be the salvation of the circus; the only problem was, Rosie didn't have an act - in fact, she couldn't even follow instructions. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.

My thoughts: A few years ago, a friend gave me this book and it just ended up sitting on my bookshelf. I never got around to reading it and as I was packing up to move, I came across the book and gave it back. Then, my book club decided to read it and even though I wasn't able to make the meeting for this book, I still made a point to read it...and I loved it!!!

Water for Elephants is told in the first person but from two different perspectives - Jacob Jankowski at 23 years of age and Jacob at 93 years old. Sara Gruen seamlessly weaves the chapters between past and present. Jacob at 23 is finishing up his last semester at Cornell Veterinary School when a family tragedy causes him to flee. He finds himself on a train for the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth in 1931. Needing a vet, the circus hires young Jacob to tend to their menagerie. Jacob at 93 resides in a nursing home where he laments the curses of old age, the passing of his wife, and the waning affection of his family. The arrival of a visiting circus triggers a flashback to his youthful circus experiences.

The story of his incredible life and adventures with the Benzini Brothers circus unfold in a way that is emotionally wrenching, yet there are flashes of good humor throughout. The characters are richly drawn, and even the animals are given complex personalities that make them a pivotal part of the story. There is something in this novel for everyone: it is equal parts adventure, mystery, fictional memoir, love story, and historical account. According to the author's note at the end of the book, many of the compelling anecdotes in the story were based upon real events, culled from the diaries and personal histories of old-time circus performers. As a result, Water for Elephants is a novel that boasts the rare combination of being both entertaining and informative.

Now the question is do I go see the movie or not? The previews that I have seen look great but will the movie take away from the book which I thought was excellent? Did anyone go see the movie and if so, what are your thoughts?

(I purchased this book.)


  1. I had a similar experience with the book - it sat on my shelf for a LONG time before I read it and I ended up LOVING it! Shortly after I read it there were some photos put on the internet that were restored color slides from about this era and it was just captivating... lots of train pictures. I wish I could remember where I found the site (a Colorado museum of some kind?)...

    anyway... I saw the movie, too, and I am not too hard on movies and tend to love the whole movie-going experience. Of course, it wasn't as in depth as the book so you don't get quite the sense of fear that I had when reading the book, but overall it was fun to see.

  2. @Danette I am definitely going to need to try to find those photos...I love looking at old photos. Thanks for sharing!


    This is sort of what I saw, but it isn't it exactly. Fascinating to see these pictures in color, I think. If I stumble across them I'll comment again!

  4. I loved both the book and the movie but it was a long time between them for me. I forgot a lot of the details of the book by then.

  5. I am going to try to read this book before the movie comes out on DVD in November though I think I will be stuck picturing Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon as the characters (especially since I own the movie tie-in edition). Your review certainly makes me want to read the book more! I didn't realize how much historical fact and detail was incorporated into the story. Thanks for your review!


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