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Water for Elephants

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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.

368 pages, Paperback

First published May 22, 2006

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About the author

Sara Gruen

18 books6,537 followers
Sara Gruen is the #1 New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of five novels: AT THE WATER'S EDGE, APE HOUSE, WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, RIDING LESSONS, and FLYING CHANGES. Her works have been translated into forty-three languages, and have sold more than ten million copies worldwide. WATER FOR ELEPHANTS was adapted into a major motion picture in 2011 starring Reese Witherspoon, Rob Pattinson, and Christoph Waltz, and then into a smash Broadway musical, currently running at the Imperial Theatre, written by Rick Elice and PigPen Theatre Co. and directed by Jessica Stone.

She lives in Western North Carolina with her husband and three sons, along with their dogs, cats, horses, birds, and the world’s fussiest goat.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 62,576 reviews
Profile Image for Rachel.
691 reviews61 followers
May 3, 2020
I think I expected too much out of this novel and therefore had room only for disappointment. Though I finished the book in its entirety, I wrote a short review on my blog about halfway through, expounding on the aspects of the book that irritated me. I have adapted it herein.

First, the main "heroine," Marlena, is incredibly flat & boring. The narrator/main character, Jacob, is clearly infatuated with her, but I'm not sure why other than she looks good in pink sequins. She's married to her arrogant, bipolar boss, so maybe there's some sort of damsel-in-distress complex triggered in our hero. Regardless, I don't care about her. She doesn't engage me or hold any allure. The novel really ends up being more of a romance tale, and to be honest I think it would be just as interesting (more so?) without Marlena.

There were several instances of explicit sexual encounters fairly close together in the heart of the novel that annoyed me. I don't inherently react against books with sex, but I do object to explicit, gratuitous sex. It felt more for shock value than actually relevant to the plot or characterization. The instances of it are over-the-top and some even slightly grotesque to the point of distraction. The crudeness calmed down after a bit, but it distracted me through the center of the novel.

Furthermore, I'm not even sure the narrator is believable/realistic. It takes him too long to figure things out; he likes to describe a scene in excruciating detail before he "realizes what's going on." If I had been standing next to him, by the time he "realizes what's going on," I would have smacked him over the head and left. Too often he encounters situations in a total stupor. OK, so people don't always react instantaneously. But when you describe it in exhaustive detail, it doesn't make me think something is happening quickly. (Speaking of descriptions, every strong smell is described as "overwhelming." Really, is that the best adjective you've got?) Additionally, I can't quite reconcile the young Jacob to the 90/93-year-old Jacob. A lot can change in 70 years, but I can't see the sensitive, humble Jacob I meet in large stretches of the novel with the bitter, crotchety old Jacob I meet in shorter excerpts. Maybe some more explanation of what caused the change would have helped.

The story has so much potential in its unique setting: Depression/Prohibition-era traveling circus. This alone kept me reading because I was curious at least to see where the narration was going. Will it end with Jacob's death or something else? How long does he stay on the circus, etc? So I guess kudos to the author for that: at least the uniqueness of the setting & atmosphere keeps me intrigued.

Maybe I expected too much. Still, I give the book credit: despite my disappointment, I was curious to the end.
Profile Image for Rachel M..
23 reviews128 followers
December 29, 2007

I really wanted to like this book. I think my low opinion is partially my fault, because I drove into the story with high expectations due to rave reviews. I need to learn not to do that.

The beginning of this novel was excellent. A Ivy League dropout, who formerly studied to be a vet, runs away and joins the circus. The time period? The Depression and Prohibition America - a historical era of uncertainty and chaos. I was looking for an intriguing tale of a college youth thrust into an unfamiliar world, along with a dose of touching animal stories. What I got was a romance. Pure and simple.

A major issue in this novel is the characterization. The characters, with the exception of Walter (aka Kinko) and his dear Queenie, were flat and predictable. Marlena and August bothered me the most - Marlena being beautiful and kind and boring, and August being a cruel husband due to his mental illness. Besides the hackneyed stereotype of the mentally ill being violent, August's schizophrenia appeared to be a plot device to bring Jacob and Marlena together without making them look like bad people for cheating. I didn't buy it for half a second. I think the affair would've been much more interesting if August was...well, basically a normal husband who was maybe a little too obsessed with his own accomplishments.

The romance between Jacob and Marlena made me yawn. While Jacob was a fairly developed character, Marlena was the epitome of a side-female love interest: gorgeous with little beneath the surface. Barbara, the "cooch girl", had more depth than her. If Marlena were developed further (and if she had a flaw or two), I could buy their love story. And hey, maybe one day I'll appreciate where the characters ended up. Today is not that day. On a similar note, I've heard some people complain about the sex scenes, and while the descriptions are a bit odd, I had no problem with there being sex in the book. The setting is a circus, there is booze everywhere, and sex is gonna happen.

Again - I think I went into this novel with high expectations and if I'm getting the wrong idea or whatever, that's my own doing. I'll probably pick it up again in the future to see if I think differently then.
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,327 reviews121k followers
August 11, 2022
Ladies and gentlemen. Direct your attention to the performer in print. You will be amazed, dazzled and mystified by the daring feats you are about to witness. Well, that might be overstating a bit. The story does open with drama, though. A circus menagerie has gotten loose and there is mayhem. The narrator, Jacob, sees the ringmaster murdered. We then scoot ahead to the present. Jacob is in his 90s and looks back, revisiting his ghosts. From here, we flip back and forth between Jacob in the present and his recollections.

When Jacob is 23, his parents are killed in an auto mishap, leaving him penniless. He drops out of veterinary school, just shy of completion, and when the freight train he hops turns out to be transporting a circus he finds himself in a new life.

Sara Gruen image from The Globe and Mail

There is unkindness aplenty under the big top. An evil owner, Uncle Al, Blackie the enforcer, August, the mood-challenged and abusive supervisor of animals, and husband of Marlena, who performs with horses, and with whom Jacob is smitten. But for every cruelty there is kindness. Jacob is helped by the elderly alcoholic, Camel, when he is newly on the bum and Jacob later returns the favor. A grumpy dwarf named Walter shows a kinder side, in time.

What is real and what is an illusion? Gruen offers us a major sleight of hand that I will not write of here. But there are sundry references throughout the book. A circus, per se, is involved in the business of illusion. There is a wonderful image here of a hippo being paraded through town, even though it has already gone to meet its maker. Some relationships in the story are based on illusion as well.

But the core items here are Jacob’s love for the married Marlena, and the behavior of a newly acquired elephant, who may not be as dumb as she at first appears. While both tales are engaging, I did find the pacing to be somewhat slow. Thankfully, this is a very fast read. I know, that sounds contradictory, but one can flip through the pages quickly while waiting for something to happen. Gruen does a nice job of making her characters real, a wonderful gift.

I have no idea if Gruen had any intention of making political observations, but here are a few things one might see in her work. One gruesome practice engaged in by Uncle Al and his thugs is redlighting, or tossing employees from a moving train. Think of it as a pink slip on steroids. In the Depression era of the story, as in ours, there are plenty who would be more than happy to toss those of us on the lower echelon, let alone their mamas, from a moving train. Is Uncle Al the ultimate Republican? Class comes in for a look. The roustabouts, the working men, are treated far differently from the performers and from management. The class system is sealed in place. When times are tough, for instance, performers and managers are paid, but the roustabouts are often stiffed. I know that reminds me of soaring corporate profits while unemployment remains high. When one is physically damaged, management does its best to either dump the unwell, or find some darker use for them. Caring for the sick is clearly not something that is done here, at least not for the workers. Housing is distributed somewhat unequally as well.
In order to accommodate less than a dozen performers, we will now have sixty-four working men sleeping under wagons on the flats. (p 131)
You have to figure that any story featuring a character named Jacob should have a ladder, and indeed there are a few, but I did not see any particular heavenly references there. And if one is looking for classical cues, one might find that in Genesis 25:27 the biblical Jacob is a “dweller in tents.” Ok, it’s not much. Is there a parallel with the story of that earlier Jacob? Maybe, but if so it did not really jump out at me.

While Water for Elephants may not be the greatest book on earth, it is a very engaging and entertaining page turner. I would not confuse this with books with great literary ambition. It is what it is, a darned good read, and that is good enough to perform in the center ring.

PS - I suggest you take a peek at the review by GR pal, Petergiaquinta. He has a much better handle on the whole biblical reference thing, and some nice non-biblical insights beyond.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, and FB pages
Profile Image for Kevin.
30 reviews24 followers
December 4, 2013
I wanted to like this book. I really did. I even enjoyed the first couple of chapters and was prepared for an entertaining summer read Eventually, however, the lack of imagination, melodrama, and just plain bad writing did it in for me. At the risk of beating a dead horse (albeit a dead horse with tremendous appeal to book clubs across the United States), let me enumerate the problems (spoiler alert – not that I suggest you read this book anyway):

1. Neither the narrator, nor any of the other characters in Water for Elephants, for that matter, even remotely sound like they live in the 1930s, nor does the old man sound like an old man in the present-day chapters (in fact, he sounds exactly like he did as a 22-year old in the 1930s chapters). This indicates that the author has either a completely tin ear for a dialogue or not enough imagination to put her self into the minds of her characters.

2. In the movie version of this book (which surely must the on the way), our narrator Jacob surely must be played by Alan Alda, age difference be damned. He is, without a doubt, the nicest, most sensitive character to appear in any book I have the memory of reading (and I’m counting the Bible). On at least half-a-dozen occasions, he breaks down in tears at the cruel injustice of the world, including becoming comatose for over an hour (yes, over an hour – the author is explicit) after putting down a sick horse – despite being a veterinarian. Perhaps rethinking his line of work is in order.

3. Melodrama and sentimentality, offered with the utmost sincerity, dominates all the action in the book. Chapters are dotted with multiple fights, murders, stampedes and other calamities, creating not drama but rather a creeping sense of incredulousness in the reader. To illustrate with two examples: At the end of the 1930s storyline, following a deadly stampede in which the villain is murdered (yes, murdered) by an elephant (yes, an elephant), the narrator marries the girl (thus rescuing her from an abusive relationship) and takes from the recently failed circus 12 horses, a dog, a monkey, and an elephant (yes, an elephant!) to live with him and his wife happily ever after. This is not played for laughs. We are meant to be moved by the noble sacrifice, I think. At the end of the present-day storyline, our same narrator, now widowed and without his menagerie, runs off to join the circus (again) and the age of 93, in what has all the makings of a Hallmark movie.

4. Modern-day, therapy-driven (dare I say “touchy-feely”) sentiment pervades the entire story, especially those parts set in the 1930s. The book teaches (and remember, this is a book meant for adults, not children) such valuable lessons as: treating the elderly with respect is important; racism and antisemitism are wrong; violence against women is wrong; being cruel to animals (or even thinking of them as less important than people) is wrong; all people are important, not matter what there is; little people (dwarfs) have a difficult time in the world and deserve or respect; etc. By keeping her story in bondage to these platitudes, Gruen creates exceptionally one-dimensional characters who either support modern and politically correct values (and thus are good) or don’t (and thus are bad, unless of course they suffers from mental illness and the stings of antisemitism, in which case they are to be pitied). I can’t count the number of times I rolled my eyes, as the narrator, recently orphaned, covered in horse shit, and practically starving during the Great Depression, takes the time to think of those less fortunate. A narrator with a little bit more dirt on his soul would have been much more believable and ultimately more sympathetic.

N.B. – To continue my rant: The blurb that accompanies this book on the New York Times bestseller list reads something to the effect “Young man and an elephant save Depression-era circus.” Did the person who wrote that event read the book? The circus collapses into a spasm of chaos and violence at the end of the book.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Sammy.
207 reviews951 followers
November 16, 2007

I could not put this book down. I disagree with the statement that the ending was predictable. On the contrary I was pleasantly surprised that Jacob and Marlena ended up together because I thought the book was going to follow the format of those "never meant to be" loves. You know, where they hook up, yearn for each other, but can't grow old together.

I think the biggest disappointment I had with the book was Marlena's relative weakness. I think I would have loved the book even more had she been written as a stronger woman. Though I think her nature reflected that of most women back in the 30s. Still, I got annoyed by the frequent crying she did. I was proud of her for standing up to August in the end. Even so, Marlena's weakness didn't stop me from loving the book.

What drew me in the most was our flash forwards to 93-year-old (or is it 90?) Jacob. With the exception of his grouchiness everything about him reminded me of my grandfather, who past away last Thanksgiving at 97. It was the fact that he was failing physically but was holding on strong mentally that kept making me think of this man I admired so much. Also, Jacob's undying love for his wife was extremely remeniscent of my grandfather's relationship with my grandmother. If you have elderly loved ones this is just another reason for you to pick up this book. It will probably make you want to call up said loved one and talk to them about their past and their memories. Hopefully it will also strike a note to those who have ignored/forgotten/set aside their loved ones for so long, as Jacob's family has done with him.

Animal lovers beware with this book. As much as Jacob loves and has a passion for the animals he cares for, there is also a lot of animal abuse that takes place throughout the novel. Being a huge animal rights activist and just all around animal lover, I knew that the animals probably weren't going to be treated very well seeing as 70 years ago animals in the circus were only taken care of as long as they were bringing in a profit, even then... But despite having prepared myself, I was still caught of guard often. So just know that upon picking up this book. The happy animal moments do outweigh the cruelty, though, and if you know animal behavior at all you'll find yourself giggling and cheering quite a bit.

On a final note, this book is being praised as a romance novel, but it's so much more than that. There are so many layers and characters in this book that to shove it in that one exclusive category could turn away a lot of potential readers who will love this book. If you're a lover of animals, the elderly, adventure, circuses, the Great Depression, or even drunks, pick up this book and you'll find yourself hooked.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Nataliya.
846 reviews14.1k followers
May 19, 2020
I picked up Water for Elephants after seeing the movie. You know, the one with "that Twilight guy" - who for a change was allowed to smile. And to have other facial expressions besides "permanently constipated". The math is simple:

Drum roll: Rosie the elephant works better than Ex-Lax!
But on to the book now. In addition to Jacob Jankowski's "love affair" with Rosie the elephant (and a noticeably less sweet affair with Marlena-the-bland-chick) we get a parallel story of Jacob the old guy (who is ninety. Or ninety-three). The latter was the part of the book that I loved. It's a sad story of a cranky old guy in a nursing home who feels his mind and body falling apart but refuses to accept that, and realizes that life is beginning to pass him by. He reminded me of so many elderly patients that I have taken care of in the hospital. Sadness. This is why I did not mind the far-fetched happy ending - hey, old folks don't always have enough happiness in their lives, and they have earned it!

(a) Here is what I did NOT care for.
The young Jacob's story (the bulk of the book) left me rather indifferent. The premise and the beginning of the book were interesting, but the story started dragging about a third into the book. It became repetitive - August is charming, August is a villain, Marlena pouts, Rosie gets viciously beaten, Jake wants Marlena, Marlena wants Jake, Jake and Marlena can't have each other. Rinse and repeat. The story developments become more and more superficial and detached as the story progresses, as though the author ran out of steam and was finishing the book only because she was under contract to do so. Many characters are flat as well. Young Jacob is naive to the point of disbelief, and Marlena is very bland. Besides her beauty, there seems to be little reason for anyone to love her. Uncle Al is greedy and evil. The only twist in the story () felt anticlimactic since by that point I found it hard to care. Oh, and I don't think it would have been too difficult to include a few footnotes with translation of Polish phrases. I can read some Polish, so it was not an issue for me, but why not oblige a reader who does not understand Polish?

(b) Here is what I thought was nicely done.
I did love the characterization of August. The oscillation between delightfully charming and batshit crazy was portrayed very well. We can argue whether this portrayal vilifies mental illness (), but from my experience with people with similar condition it is shown quite close to the truth, unpleasant as the truth may be. I felt bad for August in the end, and I think it's the feeling the author was going for - some sympathy for the "villain".
I loved the descriptions of circus life during the Great Depression. The poverty, the brutality, the beauty, the hard work - all was shown very well. Unfortunately, these elements are much better developed in the first part of the book than the second.

Overall, I though the book was an uneven but mostly enjoyable read. It did not change my life in any way, but it was not a waste of time either. Nice story of circus life interspersed with bland romance, with a touching parallel story of trying to reclaim one's identity in the aging body and mind.
3 stars is the verdict.
Profile Image for RJ McGill.
239 reviews82 followers
August 24, 2015
Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants is one of those rare novels, that will be read and re-read, discussed and enjoyed for many years, by old and young alike. Destined to be passed between family and friends and back again, until the tattered, time worn pages resemble the books beloved central character and narrator.Jacob Jankowski, just days from the final exams at Cornell University that would have attached the respectable Dr. of Veterinary medicine forever to his name, had his world forever altered when his parents were killed in an auto accident. Alone, frightened and penniless, the 23 hopped a train, never intending to “run away with the circus”… although, looking back, as he sat in the nursing home telling his story, it seemed fate didn’t much care about intentions, especially during the depression. It was hard life, the Benzini Brothers Circus, hailed as the Most Spectacular Show On Earth - which of course meant, it wasn’t Ringling and anything that wasn’t Ringling… well, wasn’t Ringling. And so it went, from town to town, day after day — set it up, tear it down - the freaks and geeks, midgets and clowns worked, ate, performed, lived and often died together. The harsh conditions are made even more unbearable at times, by the greedy manager, Uncle Al and his insane animal trainer, August. Yet somehow, in the midst of despair friendships and laughter persevered. Although much of the laughter was alcohol induced, during the height of the depression and prohibition, you took what you could get.

The narrator’s transition from the young circus vet, to the elderly, cantankerous nursing home resident is a well crafted, bi-lateral view that pulls the reader into this fictional world and never lets go. Whether in his twenties admiring beautiful, equestrian performer, Marlena and caring for the animals he loved so dearly or in his nineties mulling over where to have breakfast and the indignities of old age, the warm, quick wit comes through loud and clear. From the big top to the nursing facility Gruen’s sharp, three dimensional, fictionally fluid characters will have you laughing out loud one minute, mouth agape in sheer terror the next.

Hurry, hurry, step right up, readers and book lovers everywhere - if you hunger for a reading experience chock full of every conceivable emotion, beautifully written and wholly engrossing, Water for Elephants is a wondrous world, where fact and fiction combine, delivering the most memorable and pleasurable hours, you will be spend with a book. Characters so sharply drawn and wrought with emotion that there nearly flow off the page. Sara Gruen’s depictions of depression era America is as beautiful as it is haunting. From unspeakable cruelty and brutality, to selfless acts of kindness, Water for Elephants not only has it all, but delivers it with unapologetic honesty and genuine heart felt passion. This remains one of my top 5 favorite books.

Happy Reading!
Profile Image for Ahmad Sharabiani.
9,564 reviews101 followers
October 17, 2021
Water for Elephants, 2007‭, Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants is a historical novel by Sara Gruen, written as part of National Novel Writing Month. Publication date: 26 May 2006 (1st edition).

The story is told as a series of memories by Jacob Jankowski, a 93-year-old man who lives in a nursing home. Jacob is told what to eat and what to do. As the memories begin, Jacob is a 23-year-old Polish American preparing for his final exams as a Cornell University veterinary student when he receives the devastating news that his parents died in a car accident.

Jacob's father was a veterinarian and Jacob had planned to join his practice. When Jacob learns that his parents' home has been mortgaged to pay for his tuition and is not to become his, he has a breakdown and leaves his Ivy League school just short of graduation.

In the dark of night, he jumps on a train, a circus train belonging to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.

On the train he is befriended by Camel, an old man and circus veteran, who persuades his companions not to throw Jacob off the train and takes him under his wing, finding him odd menial jobs.

When the owner of the circus, Uncle Al, learns of his training as a vet, he is hired to care for the circus animals. This leads Jacob to share quarters with a dwarf named Walter (who is known as Kinko to the circus) and his dog Queenie.

A few weeks later Jacob is summoned to take a look at Camel, who, after drinking "Jake" (adulterated Jamaican ginger extract) for many years, can't move his arms or legs. Fearing Camel will be "red-lighted" (thrown off a moving train as punishment or as severance from the circus to avoid paying wages), Jacob hides him in his room. ...

تاریخ نخستین خوانش: روز پنجم ماه سپتامبر سال 2012میلادی

عنوان: آب برای فیلها؛ نویسنده: سارا گروئن؛ مترجم: پروین آقایی؛ کرج، در دانش بهمن، سال1388؛ در383ص، شابک9789641740674؛ موضوع: داستانهای نویسندگان کانادایی تبار ایالات متحده آمریکا - سده 21م

مترجم: مهناز سیدعلیخانی؛ تهران، آموت، سال1391، در464ص، شابک9786006605098؛

ماجرای عاشق و معشوق نگون‌بختی است، كه در دهه ی سی سده ی بیستم میلادی، در سیرکی در «آمریکا»، رخ می‌دهد؛ «ژاکوب جانکوسکی»، که به تازگی پدر و مادر خویش را، از دست داده، و سرگردان است، به واگن قطاری، در حال گذر، می‌پرد، نخست انگار میکند، وارد جهانی از موجودات عجیب شده است؛ قطارِ سیرکِ سیارِ درجه ‌دو، که کارکناش کوشش میکنند، از آشوبِ مالیِ دهه سی، سده ی بیستم میلادی، جان سالم به در برند؛ سیرک، در هر شهر، یکشب میماند؛ نگهداری از حیواناتِ سیرک، بر دوش «ژاکوب»، دانشجویِ دامداری است؛ او در آن‌جا، با «مارلنا» ستاره ی زیبای سوارکاری، و همسر «آگوست»، مربی پرجذبه اما حقه‌ باز حیوانات، و با «رزی» آشنا میشود؛ در سیرک فی��ی هست، که به نظر میرسد نمی‌توان به او تعلیم داد، اما «ژاکوب»، راهی برای نزدیک شدن به فیل، پیدا می‌کند و ...؛

تاریخ بهنگام رسانی 10/08/1399هجری خورشیدی؛ 24/07/1400هجری خورشیدی؛ ا. شربیانی
Profile Image for Michele.
Author 5 books125 followers
February 9, 2008
Now THIS is a Good Book!
When I finished reading Water for Elephants, goose bumps covered my skin. Now this is a good book! Immediately engrossed, I had a hard time putting it down as I read the story of Jacob Jankowski and his reminiscence of days with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth--otherwise known as a train circus in 1930's America.

A talented writer and storyteller, Sara Gruen takes readers on a bumpy and tense train ride through history. This tale defines Americana. There is no evidence of author here--simply narrator telling the story from Jacob's perspective (is he 91 or 93 years old?). I liked everything about the book, but primarily it was the crafting I liked best about this reading experience.

Seamlessly, Gruen weaves together the modern day voice of this old man, a Cornell-educated veterinarian, abandoned in a nursing home--a.k.a. assisted living facility--and his memories of three months spent as the accidental veterinarian on a traveling circus. Just before his final exams, he learns his parents have been killed in a car accident and this is what sets the story in motion. Once he hops aboard a train, which he soon learns is a circus train, he falls in love with a pink-sequined performer, Marlena, and battles her schizophrenic husband, August, who happens to be his boss. Jacob, a sensitive and innocent soul, is highly likeable and befriends most of the animals aboard. Most unforgettably is a "Polish" elephant by the name of Rosie. But he also endears himself to his roommate, a dwarf named Walter, and a stowaway named Camel. One can't help but root for Jacob through the entire story. And to my complete delight, it comes to a surprising and very satisfying conclusion.

This is an excellent novel and I give it my highest recommendation. Well done Sara Gruen!
Profile Image for Beth F.
387 reviews353 followers
August 8, 2008
Just to put it out there, I’ll admit straight off the bat that I’m one of the people who enjoyed this book. It was a fast read (which I always appreciate, because I’m perpetually drowning in a list of books TBR) and it was fairly easy to get through. I also didn’t see the end coming until a few pages before it actually happened, which probably added immensely to my enjoyment factor.

I’ve been reading all the criticisms of this book in an attempt to organize my opinions after reading this book. It seems like most of the complaints have to do with cruelty to humans and animals in the story and the sex scenes sprinkled throughout Jacob’s experience with the circus.

I do not feel that the sex described in these books was inappropriate or gratuitous. In all instances (namely Barbra’s strip scene, Jacob’s deflowering with the circus prostitutes and the scene where he and Marlena finally made love), these descriptions helped to move the plot and create human experiences and reactions, which is what makes a book worth reading. Very few of us who will ever read this book can say that we were involved in a Depression-era circus, however, must of us has some concept or experience of our own with sex. In the case of this book, I feel that the sex in the book permits us to draw a parallel to these characters that we might otherwise never identify with (because they are truly from another world).

I won’t lie. There were several uncomfortable scenes where Rosie the elephant was brutally beat by August, and I cringed during those scenes. I was also extremely discomfited by the scenes where the big cats were fed rotting meat and other circus animals. The instances of redlighting were also appalling.

However, this is because I am 29-years-old. I was born in 1979. Not 1929. That time in American history is FOREIGN to me. FOREIGN, FOREIGN, FOREIGN. It’s hard for me to fathom sometimes that people actually had experiences like that so recently in the past. I have a grandmother who is 101-years-old. My father is 73-years-old. To listen to them describe life when they were my age is mind-blowing to me, because some of the stories they tell me fall into the same category of shock that I felt while reading this story.

My 87-year-old grandmother has told me stories about going to their family’s beach house in the summers and how her mother would lock her inside the house whenever the Chicago gangster’s had committed a big heist (there were several who would spend time in Minnesota and Wisconsin) while they were waiting for things to cool down. My father has stories about chasing trains and jumping on them to go for a ride out of boredom.

And so it’s my opinion that sex and animal cruelty were not the themes of the story and that to get hung up on them means missing out on something bigger. Life was different then, so we can’t apply our same logic to those events and have them still make sense. They were tangential ideas peppered throughout the story to support the actual point of the story, which I felt had to do with the aging of a human being.

The fact that the story was not just ABOUT the circus supports this. If the story was ABOUT the circus, there would have been no need to include details about Jacob as a 93-year-old man. Or to share conversations he has with the nurses in the assisted living home and with the other patients.

Aging is a very real, very human experience that none of us can escape. Even if someone dies as a young person, they won’t escape the issues that come with aging because there are people in our lives who WILL age and we will be there to witness it. I’ve already seen grandparents go through that transformation of a vital, independent adult to an old, frail being that needs help with even the most basic of a function, who can’t remember names of family members and who eventually dies.

The drastic comparison between Jacob’s life at the assisted living center and his flashbacks to his time spent at the circus give an extremely compelling glance at the passage of time and how it affects us all.

Now, all that being said. There were several instances of the author’s “modern voice” creeping in. The one that bothered me most was the reference to August’s diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. In 1933? Um, nope. It wasn’t recognized as a legitimate disease or even named until the 70’s (I think, which was when my oldest brother was diagnosed with it. If they’d known more about it at the time, he might be better off today, but there just wasn’t enough information or research available, even in the late 70’s).
Profile Image for Tina Loves To Read.
2,719 reviews1 follower
December 12, 2023
This is a historical fiction. I this book follows a man that is in a nursing home, but through out the book he has flash backs that bring us to his younger shelf. He work on the circus when he was younger. I have to say that some parts of the story was hard to read, but that was how life was back in the time point that the book flashes back too. We cannot change history now, but we should never forget it. That is why I love reading historical fiction and learning about parts of our history. I really enjoy following that man though out this book, and it made me say my grandmother will never go into a nursing home.
Profile Image for Kat Kennedy.
475 reviews16.2k followers
October 11, 2010
I can count the number of times I've been to the circus on one hand. Actually, realistically, on one finger.

We were taken once by my grandparents when I was about five. First, last and only time. My parents hate the idea of the circus and scorned it with all the pretentious uninterest that would likely scar their children for life, causing them to grow up embittered, solitary and convicted to write scathing, snarky reviews on GoodReads as a form or self expression in order to share their own misery around and dump their unresolved feelings of angst on others lest it drown them.

So naturally I dove into this book with great excitement. Some dude carrying water for elephants? Sweet!

Well, I can only say that I received the education of a lifetime that led me to believe that in many ways, my parents were right to keep me away from the circus. I don't deceive myself with the thought that modern day circuses are anything like the depression era one featured in this book but I was glad to see that Gruen didn't glorify the trade.

I don't want to ruin the book for you but apparently people didn't just carry water for elephants. In fact, not a single person in this book carries water to an elephant. What? Misleading!

Okay, you don't carry water for elephants. They simply drink too much, apparently. Way to go, Gruen, for disenchanting me from a favored yet forbidden childhood dream of mine.

Isn't the circus supposed to be magical and wonderful and full of smiling faces and happy animals in funny outfits and clowns (actually, no, clowns freak me the hell out! I once attacked a clown when I was 10 years old and at a kid's birthday party and ended up needing stitches in my left foot. I wish I were kidding. Or lying, but I'm not.)

Well, embark on Gruen's, dark, textile and encapturing tale of one's mans journey into the circus to discover the life behind the big-top.

Jacob runs away to the circus, meeting the workers who keep the show running behind the scenes, the Equestrian and Managerie director and finally the Circus owner and Ring Leader, Uncle Al - all to discover that the circus isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Water for Elephants is full of characters both good, bad and in between. It's set in the Depression era and this detail adds a great deal of flavour to the underlying story. Jacob, a Cornell trained vet, goes to work in the Menagerei for the circus to care for the animals. The story gets packed tighter than a tiny car holding twenty-five clowns, all with a crazy foot itch, when Jacob falls in love with the wife of his volitile and crazy boss, August.

This story is at times melancholy, depressing, frustrating and down-right sad. In fact, there were many moments when I wanted to put the book down, pick up some bolt cutters and track down the nearest animal-carrying circus. Not for anything illegal like releasing the animals and releasing them to go and be free or anything. Just so we're all clear on that. If a circus loses it's animals somewhere near where you live, it wasn't me. Honest.

The romance aspect of this book was well done but wasn't actually the main focus. In fact, it was far overshadowed by Gruen's awesome portrayal of a cranky old man who didn't know whether he's ninety-one or ninety-three.

So over all it was a powerful, fun, gripping read that I would highly advise you go read so that when the movie comes out and people ask, you can sneak in with the line, "Well, in the book..." and make yourself look extra smart and well-read. C'mon, we all do it. Go knock yourself out.
Profile Image for Johann (jobis89).
710 reviews4,353 followers
January 26, 2019
“Life is the most spectacular show on earth.”

Apparently I love reading books set in the circus, who knew? The Night Circus was one of my favourite books from early last year and now Water for Elephants has joined it on my LOVE list!

I’m a sucker for stories that weave back and forth between the past and present day, it might just be one of my favourite literary techniques. Jacob Jankowski, who is in his 90s and currently residing in a nursing home, recounts the memories of his youth when he joined the circus following a tragic event in his life. Elderly Jacob is hilarious, there’s still some fight left in him as he loses his temper when a new resident claims to have carried water for elephants in the circus many years ago. Which if you had actually worked as part of a circus, you would know to be practically impossible!

There’s just so many great characters I don’t know where to begin. But a special shoutout must go to the character with the biggest personality - Rosie the elephant. I loved her!! And it really reminded me of when I visited an elephant sanctuary in Thailand. They really do seem to have their own mischievous personalities - AND it has one of the cutest doggos ever, Queenie!

I found the love story slightly unrealistic... it seemed to fall into the category of “love at first sight” and I just can’t abide those stories. Marlena herself just felt a little bland too, but this is really only a minor complaint. Luckily the circus had plenty of other interesting characters to make up for her - Camel and Walter, for example.

Certain events are heartbreaking - trigger warnings for some animal abuse :( - but the book is mostly wonderfully atmospheric and a lot of fun! I’d consider this to be the first real success in my "30 books to read before turning 30" challenge AND my first 5 star read of the year!
262 reviews5 followers
July 2, 2008
April 24, 2008 edition of Coastal View News

The glitz and grit, glam and sham of depression-era circus life limps along in Sara Gruen’s “Water for Elephants” with little aid from her shoddy prose, predictable plot and underdeveloped metaphor. Although the book has a flashy appearance and is easily digested, it offers less nutritional value than promised.

When his parents suddenly and tragically die, Jacob Jankowski quits veterinarian school at Cornell University just before graduation and finds himself aboard a circus train. The Great Depression is in full swing, jobs are scarce and the likelihood of Jacob being offered a position aboard the second-rate Benzini Brothers circus is even slimmer. Luckily the circus is in need of a veterinarian and Al, the greedy and miserly ringmaster of the circus, decides not to pass up the opportunity to underpay his “Cornell-trained” vet.

Jacob quickly earns his keep by maintaining the menagerie, but because his position is awkwardly located somewhere in-between the working crew and the performers, he grapples with the sharp divide between labor and the elite. He works with both classes, and thus appreciates the benefits of associating with the higher society while at the same time sympathizes with the less-fortunate workers.

Ultimately it is two sets of relationships that define Jacob’s story, a story which “parallels the Biblical story of Jacob.” The first defining relationship is between Jacob and Marlena, who is a performer in the circus and wife to August, a bipolar and oft-violent man. Jacob is enamored with Marlena from the moment he sets eyes on her, but his up-and-down relationship with August results in repeated attempts by Jacob to suppress his urge to act on his desires. Only once does Jacob fail to control himself, and although August is not justified in suspecting the truth of Jacob’s feelings, his on-again off-again rage puts everyone in a pickle.

Meanwhile, Jacob is also fostering a second relationship, this one with an apparently obstinate bull elephant named Rosie, who is purchased by Al when another circus goes under. Jacob’s natural affection for animals and his Polish background leave him uniquely equipped to handle this once passed-over beast and to turn her into a star.

As the behind-the-scenes drama in the Benzini Brothers circus is developed, the perspective in the novel switches back and forth between Jacob in the central story and Jacob as an old man of “90. Or 93. One or the other.” The younger Jacob is caring and cordial, while the older Jacob is cranky and more obstinate than a thousand elephants.

Gruen sets her story in a depression-era circus, a second-rate one at that, in an attempt to redeem the freak show, the workingman and the downtrodden; to show that the fine line between illusion and reality is finer than most people imagine. The book described by one critic as an “escapist fairytale” embraces the impulse to flee the dingy world of reality to participate in all that is glittery.

These may be interesting ideas, but in “Water for Elephants” Gruen fails to develop them to a point of profundity. One need not have a penchant for self-spoiling to predict what is going to happen next in this book, with the unintentional red herrings—the death of Jacob’s parents and the story of two forgotten comrades—falling into nothingness. The prose is pedestrian and the plot is implausible in the most obnoxious sort of way. Astute readers might not doubt whether the events in this novel could possibly develop, but they should doubt whether such is the way people think, act and interact.

The redeeming quality of this book is a fanciful look at circus life the way it used to be. There must be something intrinsically interesting in the big top—the fat lady, the elephant and the clowns—because the intrigue in “Water for Elephants” does not come from within.
Profile Image for Paul Weiss.
1,325 reviews365 followers
April 20, 2024

Jacob Jankowski, a promising veterinary student, is advised that his parents have been killed in an automobile accident. In the course of settling their estate, he is shocked to learn that the only reason he was able to afford the costs of university education is that his parent had mortgaged everything they own. The devastating shock of learning of their death and his discovery that he is a completely impoverished, penniless pauper render him virtually incapacitated and mentally unable to deal with the difficult reality of his final exams. Walking away from the university, he surrenders to a reckless impulse and fate prods him into jumping aboard a train destination unknown. That train was the mobile home of a third rate circus, “Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth”. WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is the story of Jacob’s life in a Depression era circus and what a story it is!

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is a warm-hearted romantic tale that ultimately comes to a close on a fuzzy feel good tone, but it is also a profoundly moving and gritty story of the reality of the animal abuse and mistreatment that was historically endemic in zoos and circuses. Sara Gruen provides her readers with a lot of meat to chew on and consider – racism and bigotry, misogyny, animal abuse, class elitism, labour relations, economic theft, greed, the plight of homeless people, the difficulties of untreated mental illness, domestic abuse and more. You’ll care about the characters – whether they are human or not. The list of lovable critters is lengthy – a lion, an orangutan, an elephant (well, of course), a dog, a chimpanzee, a camel, a stable of horses and more!

Definitely recommended.

Paul Weiss
Profile Image for Fabian.
976 reviews1,914 followers
August 16, 2020
It's truly admirable to place the plot on a moving train and its roving fairgrounds... it's like living in a cotton candy cloud. There were plenty of chances to dash the reader away, to make poetry out of the circus workers' vagrant conditions, to use the animals as characters, not just decor... to avoid cliche. This novel is written concisely, but with often description so vague the reader just glides over it. Also, the narrator is absolutely unreliable... oftentimes he seems more hero than human, perhaps the 90+ year old man got all of his story mixed up with local history. Sara Gruen is herself a historian, and a lover of the "Moulin Rouge" star-crossed lovers parable. The result is a breezy, whimsical book that evokes the wonderment of the circus itself: there are fake lights, funny events, dashing drama, but its all definitely been seen before.

NEW RETROSPECTIVE RATING: 4**** (2017: "for even artichokes have h...")
Profile Image for Adina .
1,031 reviews4,250 followers
May 18, 2023
3.45 stars.

I liked the book. It was interesting to read about circus life and the plot was gripping enough. I finished it quite fast. However, I do not think it deserves 4 stars because the prose seemed a little faulty in some parts and because of Marlena's flat character.
Profile Image for Christina.
261 reviews268 followers
April 29, 2016
4 stars!

It's the 1930's, in the midst of the great depression and prohibition. At 23, Jacob Jankowski is just days away from taking his final exams at Cornell and becoming a veterinarian. He plans to join his fathers practice. Then he gets the devastating news that both his parents were killed in an automobile accident. They were behind on their mortgage and both their house and his fathers practice belong to the bank. There's nothing left for Jacob, no home to go to anymore. In a daze, he walks out on his exams and just keeps walking, coming across rail road tracks. Once he comes to his senses, realizing he needs to get back to civilization, he jumps a rail road car.
It ends up being a train for the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. One of the men on board, named Camel, takes a liking to him and takes him under his wing. And this is how Jacob finds himself working in the circus, as their veterinarian. His direct boss is August, who can go from utterly charming to seethingly angry and violent in minutes. His wife, Marlena, is a performer with the show. It is with her that Jacob finds himself becoming increasingly attracted to.

Present day finds Jacob as a 93 year old ( or is it 90? ) crotchety man in an assisted living facility, mentally strong but physically, he's having a tough time after a fall. He's dealing with his own failing body and pondering on life, worrying that his mind is starting to deteriorate as well. It's through this older Jacob's thoughts and recollections that we find out his story and how his life came to the point it is now.

Honestly, while younger Jacob had the more interesting setting, I really loved the older version of Jacob. Some of his thoughts were hilarious.

"Sometimes I think that if I had to choose between an ear of corn or making love to a woman, I'd choose the corn. Not that I wouldn't love to have a final roll in the hay -- I am a man yet, and some things never die -- but the thought of those sweet kernels bursting between my teeth sure sets my mouth to watering. It's fantasy, I know that. Neither will happen. I just like to weigh the options, as though I were standing in front of Solomon: A final roll in the hay or an ear of corn. What a wonderful dillemma. Sometimes I substitute an apple for the corn."

That is a thought by Jacob as he ponders the fact that once in assisted living, the real food disapears.

The real star of this book, in my opinion, is Rosie. A bull elephant who is purchased by the big boss, Uncle Al. Rosie has some of the best personality in the book, I think. A lot of animals are a big part of this story, from horses to lions, tigers to polar bears, hyenas to giraffes and a whole lot more. While there was some animal abuse that was a bit hard to read about, to me it sadly seemed realistic to the setting and time that the story takes place in.

I really enjoyed this. It was an interesting time in history to read about, one that I don't often hear much about. It was made even more interesting by the circus life. This is my 2nd novel by Sara Gruen and so far I haven't been disappointed. Not sure if I'll end up watching the movie honestly...I feel like alot of the time, the movie version doesn't live up to the vision of the book I have in my head, if that makes sense? And I'm perfectly pleased by this book, so the movie isn't necessarily a top priority. Im just sorry that I let this book sit on my bookshelf for so long before picking it up.
Profile Image for Mary ~Ravager of Tomes~.
354 reviews983 followers
June 12, 2017
Actual Rating: 1.5 Stars

I went into this book with basically no expectations.

Outside of the preview I saw for the movie starring Robert Pattinson & Reese Witherspoon years ago, I didn't even know what this book was about. Turns out this is a story is set in the 1920's & told from the dual perspectives of Jacob Jankowski when he is 23 & 90 (or maybe 93).

On one hand, the story follows young Jacob right after his parents are both taken from him in a freak car accident. Laden with grief, he abandons his studies & joins the circus. Older Jacob, now bound to the care of a nursing home, reflects on the events of his life & slow dehumanization that occurs after one reaches a certain age.

I have to say, I hardly connected with this book at all. After the initial tragedy of Jacob's parent's deaths, I lost all interest in his life as part of the circus. The story is written well enough, but I didn't find the idea very compelling & I just did not care about his relationships & rivalries with other characters.

You may assume older Jacob's part of the book would be even less interesting by nature, but surprisingly these were the only parts I found myself engaging with. As an old, sarcastic man, Jacob contemplates how the elderly often revert back to the status of young children in the eyes of society. These ideas are simultaneously hilarious & disheartening, and achieved their goal in making me ponder how we treat our elders.

My reading experience with Water for Elephants can only be described as depressing as hell.

There's a lot of unnecessary violence in this story, & some explicit sex scenes that felt entirely pointless. I saw where the author was trying to go, but ultimately the events that take place on both fronts felt contrived.

Sometimes I have moments while reading "Adult" books where I feel as though the author is nervous their book won't be considered "Adult" enough if they don't throw in some blood, gore, & sex. This is the feeling this book gave me. It just wasn't essential to the characterization & it did nothing to salvage my feelings of distaste about the plot in general.

At the end it is revealed that the entirety of young Jacob's experience in the circus takes place in 3.5 months, and I couldn't help but find that laughable. In such a short space of time so much over the top drama takes place without the stabilizing sense of humanity that would've given me a reason to care about this story.

Other than older Jacob's sections, the only other real praise I can muster for this book is the writing. Gruen has a graphic style of writing that really worked for this circus setting.

Otherwise, I don't think this is one I'll be recommending to anyone in the future.
Profile Image for Tory.
316 reviews
September 16, 2007
This is a very good example of why one should have no expectations when going into a book. I wanted this book to be great. I thought this book was going to be great. A depression era traveling circus and all that entails? Awesome! The author’s voice being likened to Mr. Irving? Awesome! The fact that damn near everyone LOVED it? Promising! The only other circus book I’ve read was GEEK LOVE, and holy shit. Awesome! All of this lead me to believe that I was about to be blown away.

But, it wasn’t awesome. And I hated it because it wasn’t. Normally, I probably would have just thought, meh- good, but not great. But it wouldn’t have evoked such distaste had I not expected it to be brilliant.

Given the concept, there was so much room for fantastical wonderfulness that this story lacks entirely. All the bits that almost got there- the mischievousness of the elephant that didn’t understand English, the moonshine paralysis, a hippo in formaldehyde, murdering elephants- weren’t the authors ideas, but anecdotes from her research. How fucking dull.

It would have been a million more times gratifying had it been written as non-fiction, because the details were good. And even interesting. But the fiction part… basically, is an unimaginative love story with boring, cliché characters that I couldn’t stand and a Hollywood ending.

Profile Image for Bharath.
717 reviews540 followers
June 20, 2018
Jacob Jankowski is now in his 90s under care in a home. His mind travels back to the time he copes with tragedy when he loses his parents in an accident. It forces him to drop out of college while studying to be a Vet, and jump on a train. As it turns out he has landed in a circus train. What follows are his experiences in the circus. There is Arthur who is merciless and self centered. His wife Marlena whom Jacob follows in love with. Then there are the animals, especially the elephant Rosie.

The circus environment is well researched and very realistic - be it the way animals are trained to perform, including cruelty many times or how the performers make their living....However the story line is very predictable and the characters are not too well etched. You do feel for the elephant Rosie though.

This book had incredible promise with it's circus scenario but falls short with characterization, story and pace. But it is still worth a read without having very high expectations.....
Profile Image for Jason Koivu.
Author 7 books1,324 followers
March 5, 2022
Oprah's minions shall no longer rule my reading!

I probably would have disliked this less if I'd read the paperback instead of listening to the audiobook, where the narrator packed too much melodrama into the simplest of actions and mildest of emotions.

I don't think I've ever taken this long to get through an audiobook. Usually, I can just let it run and bust on through by doing boring jobs like yardwork or servicing my lady*. I just plug an audiobook into my ears and knock out those chores. . Both the book and the job whizz by. But instead of doing the dishes or weeding with Water for Elephants, I chose to do other auditory things. The days-long NFL draft came in handy.

* "My lady" is the term I use for my car. Get your mind out of the gutter!
Profile Image for Buggy.
522 reviews688 followers
May 6, 2011
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.

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.

I absolutely adored this book, alternately falling in love with both Jacob, the crotchety old man and Jacob, the young, moral and penniless circus veterinarian. Water For Elephants transported me to another time and quickly became one of those books I never wanted to end.

Author Sara Gruen has researched the depression era circus life down to the smallest of details and I feel that this captivating and vivid story will appeal to almost anyone. 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. Showing us more often then not the darker side of circus life after the big top closes down. This is a love story, a life story, an animal lover’s story but above all it’s a circus story and who of us hasn’t dreamed about running away and joining the circus at some point in our lives? And the ending… *sigh*

I can't say enough good about this book, its easily one of my favourite reads this year and with Robert Pattison now taking on the upcoming movie role version of Jacob, I was able to picture him while reading, making it all the more sweeter. Cheers!

Profile Image for Brenda.
156 reviews10 followers
July 30, 2007
I just finished reading "Water for Elephants" out on my deck. Just boo. That's my review. Boo. Not a loud boo, or an emphatic boo, just your average boo. Water for Elephants equals boo.

Why do I give this a boo rating? Mostly for the dialogue. The author tries to explain 1930s carnival vernacular through a green carnie's questions about the world around him. And the questions come out over simplified and make for unrealistic and stilted conversations.

Sara Gruen also tries to intersperse a 90-year-old's reminiscings and it just comes out to obvious. He's frustrated by his location and aging body - as you would imagine. And of course he's pathetic and vulnerable and all that as well. It just seems like it's been done before to tell the story from this vantage point.

The book does have some good points. If you were to read it you can look forward to a few murderous tendencies in man and beast alike. Also, since the terrible dialogue takes up a good chunk of the book, you can skip it without missing any of the story making for a fast read. And there are freaks with hearts of gold.

But the most boo-able thing about this book is probably not Gruen's fault, and that is the timing with the HBO show Carnivale. I know that others have made this observation, too. That show was so visual and stimulating that it makes the descriptions and controversies in this book dull by comparison. I was waiting for Jonesy and the priest to come on the scene and duke it out.

The two stars are for the technical written word that mostly failed to detract from the story and for the obvious amount of research and effort the author put into developing the setting.
Profile Image for Izetta Autumn.
419 reviews
July 12, 2007
Somehow I feel that I have to defend why I liked this book, even though there's no one saying why I shouldn't have enjoyed it. Here's what I found most touching: the author took an fantastic premise - an orphan running away to the circus, a love triangle, an elephant, and the Great Depression and weaved a tale that doesn't make you say "bullocks," at every page. Gruen outlines use of anachronistic story telling is effective and she is skilled at moving the story along, even more adept at highlighting an aging man who is recalling his prime. Because Gruen juxtaposes her novel against the Great Depression, careful readers will find an interesting opportunity for retrospection around how we treat elders today and during the depression and where we put our "unwanteds."

The book is fantastical and clearly well researched, with the exception of one character being misdiagnosed as "paranoid schizoprenic." This inaccuracy can be forgiven. Gruen also works hard to show the layers of social dynamics, acknowledging in the book: segregation, racism, ability and others who are "queered out," poverty, capitalism, and elder care. That's a lot to put comfortably in a book - and to Gruen's credit I didn't feel overcrowded. I am most impressed with Gruen's technique; its the details in the craft of her writing that makes the story possible.

My only complaint would be that while most all of the characters are quite believable, the female protagonist, I found to be a little flat. I don't feel that Gruen inhabited her as the writer - she didn't quite come to life for me, I didn't find her realistic or understand her. I also am still thinking through a casual (and perhaps unintended) parallel the author draws between Rosie the elephant and the Black female nurse who Jacob so appreciates. I have to revisit that.

After reading the book I am certainly more interested in reading historic accounts of the circus - definitely an intereting topic; had me yearning for a certain X-Files episode featuring the circus - but I digress... ;-D
Profile Image for Theresa.
242 reviews156 followers
March 26, 2017
Such a whimsical and fascinating novel. Some of the violence involving circus animals was a little upsetting but overall, I enjoyed reading about Jacob's story. I really liked him. :)
Profile Image for Nancy.
557 reviews822 followers
May 22, 2015
I wasn’t planning on reading this story, but my co-worker insisted. Since we had so much fun reading and discussing The Help, I decided to borrow the audio book from the library.

Craig enjoyed the story more than I did and gave it four stars, while I gave it just three. We both enjoyed the alternating perspectives, from that of Jacob when he’s in his early 20’s and working for the Benzini Brothers circus to the old Jacob, when he’s 90 (or 93) and living in a nursing home. We loved the large cast of fully developed and memorable characters, and the well-researched and realistic details of circus life.

What I didn’t enjoy so much was how the story went from a fascinating look at life and hardship during the Great Depression, to circus life – its magic, sparkly costumes, and performing animals, and the harsh living and working conditions – to a tepid, plodding romance between Jacob and the kind, beautiful and lifeless Marlena.

The tacked-on, sappy ending was disappointing too.

Overall, it was an entertaining story, just not one that will stay with me.
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