Book Review

Book Review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Title: Water for Elephants

Author: Sara Gruen

Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance

First Publication: 2006

Language: English

Major Characters: Jacob Jankowski, August, Rosie, Camel, Uncle Al, Kinko/Walter, Marlena L’Arche, Rosemary

Setting Place: Joliet, Illinois, Ithaca, New York, (United States)

Theme: Love, Admiration, Courage; Freedom and Confinement,

Narrator: First Person from Jacob’s Point of View


Book Summary: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

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 by Sara Gruen 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.


The book, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, is also available on Audible. It’s narrated by David LeDoux, John Randolph Jones.


Book Review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

I can fully see why Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen has such a polarizing effect on its readers: the circus setting led me to anticipate this as a fantastical and magical, fast-paced read, akin to The Night Circus. What was actually delivered was a moving and slow-building portrait of life as part of a circus. This was densely descriptive and evocative of the life of Jacob Jankowski, veterinarian for the Benzini Brothers’ circus show, but there was little plot to move the story forward.

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen was split between past Jacob, as he traveled with the circus, and present Jacob, as he reminisced on his life whilst incarcerated into a nursing home by ill-health and old age. It was interesting learning why the naive and hopeful youth turned into the old miser the story opens with.

“When two people are meant to be together, they will be together. It’s fate.”

In the beginning of Water For Elephants, Jacob Jankowski tells us that he is ninety or ninety-three. One or the other. He’s not really sure anymore. His body betrayed him years ago and Jacob now fears that his mind isn’t far behind. Shuffling along miserably behind his walker, he’s living out his final days in the nursing home and hating every minute of it. Just another invisible senior citizen who’s family and the world as a whole has forgotten about.

When the circus comes to town and sets up its Big Top tents across the street Jacob comes alive and through a series of flashbacks begins to tell us his life’s story. Taking us back to when he joined the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show On Earth, a traveling circus he toured with during the great depression. So step right up folks because this old man has quite the story to tell.

“Keeping up the appearance of having all your marbles is hard work, but important.”

At the age of 23 Jacob had a predictable future set out ahead of him, one that certainly didn’t involve joining the circus. However with his parents untimely death and the bank foreclosing on his family home Jacob soon finds himself homeless, heartbroken and mentally quite unable to sit his final veterinary exams. When an exotic, animal filled train steams toward him Jacob doesn’t even think. Flinging himself aboard the boxcar and inadvertently changing his destiny forever.

Filled with action, adventure and a sweet forbidden romance there is also a fascinating sideshow of secondary characters including a clever Polish Elephant, a grouchy little person as Jacob’s roommate and a cruel and schizophrenic animal trainer whose wife Jacob just happens to fall in love with. All of this has been wrapped together with a compelling and innovative behind the scenes look aboard a travelling circus train.

“The more distressing the memory, the more persistent it’s presence. ”

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is, in fact, a romance story with an unusual and exotic background. I fell in love with the story and the characters, despite the simplicity of the tale. For me, this book’s strongest moments were in the beautiful simplicity and the thorough creation of the wonderful setting. I fell into the pages and was lost in this past, magical world. Water for Elephants is adapted into a major movie starring Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon released in 2011.



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