Summary and book reviews of Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants

A Novel

by Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants
  • Critics' Opinion:

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  • First Published:
    May 2006, 335 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2007, 368 pages

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Book Summary

An atmospheric, gritty, and compelling novel of star-crossed lovers, set in the circus world circa 1932 illuminated by a wonderful sense of time and place. Winner of the 2007 BookBrowse Award for Most Popular Book.

Winner of the 2007 BookBrowse Diamond 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 struggling to survive during the Great Depression, making one-night stands in town after endless town. A veterinary student who almost earned his degree, Jacob 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.

Beautifully written, 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.

Prologue

Only three people were left under the red and white awning of the grease joint: Grady, me, and the fry cook. Grady and I sat at a battered wooden table, each facing a burger on a dented tin plate. The cook was behind the counter, scraping his griddle with the edge of a spatula. He had turned off the fryer some time ago, but the odor of grease lingered.

The rest of the midway—so recently writhing with people—was empty but for a handful of employees and a small group of men waiting to be led to the cooch tent. They glanced nervously from side to side, with hats pulled low and hands thrust deep in their pockets. They wouldn't be disappointed: somewhere in the back Barbara and her ample charms awaited.

The other townsfolk—rubes, as Uncle Al called them—had already made their way through the menagerie tent and into the big top, which pulsed with frenetic music. The band was whipping through its repertoire at the usual earsplitting ...

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About the Book

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 ...
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    BookBrowse Awards
    2007

Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

A highly enjoyable, well-researched, somewhat romantic read that brings to life the era of the traveling circus and small town America during the Depression.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

Full Review Members Only (155 words).

Media Reviews

The New York Times - Elizabeth Judd

Circuses showcase human beings at their silliest and most sublime, and many unlikely literary figures have been drawn to their glitzy pageantry, soaring pretensions and metaphorical potential. Unsurprisingly, writers seem liberated by imagining a spectacle where no comparison ever seems inflated, no development impossible. For better and for worse, Gruen has fallen under the spell. With a showman's expert timing, she saves a terrific revelation for the final pages, transforming a glimpse of Americana into an enchanting escapist fairy tale.

Kirkus Reviews

The leisurely recreation of the circus's daily routine is lovely and mesmerizing, even if readers have visited this world already in fiction and film, but the plot gradually bogs down in melodrama.

Booklist - Marta Segal

The ending of both stories is a little too cheerful to be believed, but...the magic of the story and the writing convince you to suspend your disbelief.

Publishers Weekly

Despite her often cliche'd prose and the predictability of the story's ending, Gruen skillfully humanizes the midgets, drunks, rubes and freaks who populate her book.

Library Journal

Old-fashioned and endearing, this is an enjoyable, fast-paced story.

Author Blurb Jeanne Ray, author of Julie and Romeo
So much more than a tale about a circus, Water for Elephants is a compelling journey not only under the big top, but into the protagonist's heart. Sara Gruen uses her talent as a writer to bring that world alive for the reader: I could smell it, taste it, feel every word of it. This is a fiction reader's dream come true.

Author Blurb Robert Olen Butler, author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
The circus, the Great Depression, a complex elephant, equally complex love, the mists and twists of memory articulated in the utterly winning voice of a very old man who's seen it all: these are the irresistible elements of Water for Elephants. Sara Gruen has written an utterly transporting novel richly full of the stuff of life.

Reader Reviews

jsanders16

Fantastic
Great for adults, some material not recommended for people under 16. Great way to capture the essence of the great depression.

Mabel :)

The Help
I can't wait for the movie to come out! The way that the author uses the old-timey dialogue is PERFECT for this book! It helps you understand where the characters are coming from.

amanda

Water For Elephants
This is my favorite book, I love the characters!:)

mary

water for elephants
The book was enlightening. I can hardly wait for the movie. I think Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson will pair up just fine for this movie

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Beyond the Book

Jake

Sara Gruen's first novel, Riding Lessons, was published in 2004. She is an animal lover who lives with her husband, three children, five cats, two goats, a dog, and a horse in an environmental community north of Chicago. She says that she was a day away from starting a different book when she saw an article in the Chicago Tribune about a photographer who documented train circuses during the 1920s and 1930s - she was immediately hooked. Within weeks she'd tracked down many out of print books on the subject and spent days at the Ringling Circus Museum. Her research took a full year, and many of the more extraordinary scenes in the book are based on fact or anecdote (as Gruen points out the distinction between the two in ...

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