11 reviews

Water for Elephants
by Sara Gruen

Published: 2006-10
Hardcover : 563 pages
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Recommended to book clubs by 10 of 11 members
When Jacob Jankowski, recently orphaned and suddenly adrift, jumps onto a passing train, he enters a world of freaks, grifters, and misfits -- the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth -- a second-rate travelling circus struggling to survive during the Great Depression, making one-night ...
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When Jacob Jankowski, recently orphaned and suddenly adrift, jumps onto a passing train, he enters a world of freaks, grifters, and misfits -- the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth -- a second-rate travelling circus struggling to survive during the Great Depression, making one-night stands in town after endless town. Jacob, a veterinary student who almost earned his degree, 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. "Water for Elephants" is illuminated by a wonderful sense of time and place. It tells a story of a love between two people that overcomes incredible odds in a world in which even love is a luxury that few can afford.

Editorial Review

Jacob Jankowski says: "I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other." At the beginning of Water for Elephants, he is living out his days in a nursing home, hating every second of it. His life wasn't always like this, however, because Jacob ran away and joined the circus when he was twenty-one. It wasn't a romantic, carefree decision, to be sure. His parents were killed in an auto accident one week before he was to sit for his veterinary medicine exams at Cornell. He buried his parents, learned that they left him nothing because they had mortgaged everything to pay his tuition, returned to school, went to the exams, and didn't write a single word. He walked out without completing the test and wound up on a circus train. The circus he joins, in Depression-era America, is second-rate at best. With Ringling Brothers as the standard, Benzini Brothers is far down the scale and pale by comparison.

Water for Elephants is the story of Jacob's life with this circus. Sara Gruen spares no detail in chronicling the squalid, filthy, brutish circumstances in which he finds himself. The animals are mangy, underfed or fed rotten food, and abused. Jacob, once it becomes known that he has veterinary skills, is put in charge of the "menagerie" and all its ills. Uncle Al, the circus impresario, is a self-serving, venal creep who slaps people around because he can. August, the animal trainer, is a certified paranoid schizophrenic whose occasional flights into madness and brutality often have Jacob as their object. Jacob is the only person in the book who has a handle on a moral compass and as his reward he spends most of the novel beaten, broken, concussed, bleeding, swollen and hungover. He is the self-appointed Protector of the Downtrodden, and... he falls in love with Marlena, crazy August's wife. Not his best idea.

The most interesting aspect of the book is all the circus lore that Gruen has so carefully researched. She has all the right vocabulary: grifters, roustabouts, workers, cooch tent, rubes, First of May, what the band plays when there's trouble, Jamaican ginger paralysis, life on a circus train, set-up and take-down, being run out of town by the "revenooers" or the cops, and losing all your hooch. There is one glorious passage about Marlena and Rosie, the bull elephant, that truly evokes the magic a circus can create. It is easy to see Marlena's and Rosie's pink sequins under the Big Top and to imagine their perfect choreography as they perform unbelievable stunts. The crowd loves it--and so will the reader. The ending is absolutely ludicrous and really quite lovely. --Valerie Ryan


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Easy and fun thematic food and decor
by ingsink (see profile) 04/07/12
I made a great circus tent cake, served lemonade and sprinkled peanuts on the table. Also, I found some cute little popcorn boxes and cotton candy and then to top it all off my kids dressed up as cirus performers and greeted the book club members as they arrived. FUN!!!

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "Fantastic"by Anita T. (see profile) 11/24/12

I could not put this book down and loved the insights to circus life.

  "It was OK"by Lindsey M. (see profile) 09/11/12

  "One of my favorite books"by Lynn P. (see profile) 08/13/12

  "I Loved It!"by Allison H. (see profile) 08/07/12

This book is amazing! You won't want to stop reading it!

  "Loved it"by Kate K. (see profile) 06/12/12

  "Water for Elephants"by Mary Ann M. (see profile) 06/05/12

One of my a time favorites

  "All new to me"by sharon f. (see profile) 05/27/12

  "made for Book clubs"by ingrid m. (see profile) 04/07/12

We found this book not only great for discussion, but we loved the movie, too. The movie managed to maintain the lure and wonder of the circus. The book, being darker, sullied that for us.

  "It hit my senses"by Jessica H. (see profile) 04/05/12

This book completely pulled me in. It was written in such a way that I felt like I could hear, see, smell, and feel the things aound me. It was a good story. Each character came to life for me. I highly... (read more)

  "Water for Elephants"by Amie O. (see profile) 04/02/12

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