Review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

by Kim on April 22, 2010 · 30 comments

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Title: Water for Elephants
Author: Sara Gruen
Genre: Fiction
Year: 2006
Acquired: Bought
Rating: ★★★★☆

Two Sentence Summary: Jacob Jankowski ran away from veterinary medicine at Cornell and joined the circus. Now, at “ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other,” Janakowski is in a nursing home, slowing fading away while he recalls his life in the circus in Depression-Era America.

One Sentence Review: Gruen’s book is well-researched and well-written, but some qualms with the ending (discussed after a spoiler warning below) kept me from giving an otherwise awesome book a perfect rating.

Long Review: Jacob Jankowski is almost ready to take his final veterinary exams at Cornell when he gets the worst news of his life — his parents have been killed in a car accident and, because of his father’s love for animals, the veterinary practice he thought he’d be joining is gone. Confused, alone, and with no where to go, Jankowski flees his final exams and becomes a vet for the low-scale Benzini Brothers traveling circus.

Jankowski’s life on the road — tending for animals, falling for the beautiful (and married) Marlena, avoiding the wrath of Marlena’s schizophrenic husband August — is revealed slowly by a much older Jankowski, now living in a nursing home. Old Jankowski’s brain is starting to fail and he hates where he lives, but loves to tell about his life with the circus.

When my book club decided to read Water for Elephants for our selection last month, I was a little skeptical about the book, though I’m not sure why. I’m glad we read it though because it’s was a really enjoyable book to read.

The best part of the story is how much research Gruen did to make sure her descriptions of what it was like to be in the circus were accurate and entertaining. Her stories about rampaging elephants and disgusting train life are great on their own, but get an added depth knowing that this is how things actually were for members of a traveling circus.

In addition, Gruen’s tone and style throughout the book are spot on. Every member of my book club agreed that the book was easy to read and one they got through in just a short time because they didn’t want to put it down. That was certainly my experience too; Gruen’s prose is engrossing. Take this section, which comes from the prologue of the book (don’t worry, you’re not really supposed to know what’s happening just yet):

My eyes swept the tend, desperate to find Marlena. Instead I saw a cat slide through the connection leading to the big top–it was a panther, and as its lithe black body disappeared into the canvas tunnel I braced myself. If the rubes didn’t know, they were about to find out. It took several seconds to come, but come it did–one prolonged shriek followed by another, and then another, and then the whole place exploded with the thunderous sound of bodies trying to shove past other bodies off the stands. The band screeched to a halt for a second time, and this time stayed silent. I shut my eyes: Please God let them leave by the back end. Please God don’t let them try to come through here.

I opened my eyes again and scanned the menagerie, frantic to find her. How hard can it be to find a girl and an elephant, for Christ’s sake?

From there, the book jumps into the back and forth narrative of Jankowski telling his story of the circus and building to that moment of panic and the aftermath.

Speaking of the aftermath… The book club disagreed on the ending of the story.

There are spoilers coming now. Skim down to the END OF SPOILERS note if you don’t want to know what happens at the end of the book.

I felt like the two endings — Rosie the elephant killing August, allowing Marlena and Jacob to escape and Jacob running away to the circus again — were too clean. I guess it’s because I’m used to books that are so well-written to have some sort of melancholy twist at the end that this entirely happy conclusion seemed out of place. I think I’ve grown to like my stories a little messy, and this one really wasn’t.

However, other members of the group felt like the ending was perfect because it wrapped up everything the way they wanted it too, without it seeming totally out-of-the blue. I get that, just respectfully disagree. That said, we all loved Rosie and were happy she finally got her revenge.


Even with the disagreement about the ending, my book club was in pretty unanimous agreement that Water for Elephants was a great book and one that we recommend to others. I actually think it would make a great summer read for people who want to learn something while getting a good story. Water for Elephants is definitely recommended.

Other Reviews: Book Addiction | Books and Movies | Bending Bookshelf | Yule Time Reading | reading comes from writing | Jenny’s Books | Care’s Online Book Club | Farm Lane Books | DogEar Diary |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

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