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Review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen post image

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!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Rebecca @ The Book Lady's Blog April 22, 2010, 8:08 am

    I’m generally very skeptical of massive blockbuster bestsellers, so I held out on this book for a loooong time, until I ran out of books while visiting my in-laws and picked this up off their shelves. And you’re right—everything is awesome except the ending, which is just a little too tidy. But still worth reading, and the research is integrated so smoothly! Great review, Kim.

    • Kim April 24, 2010, 7:42 am

      Rebecca: I’m the same way, although I don’t remember the hype about this one when it came out — I think it was pre-book blogging so I was less into what was huge (except for Harry Potter, of course).

      I was so impressed with the research aspect of it. Getting to her notes at the end about the elephant and circus stories and how much of it was true was like the bonus cherry on top of what was already an enjoyable book.

  • Amy April 22, 2010, 8:19 am

    I read this book back when it first came out and I loved it. I see what you mean about the ending being tidy, but I have to admit that I am with the rest of your book group in loving that as well. I like the occasional tidy ending!

    • Kim April 24, 2010, 7:43 am

      Amy: The ending is totally a matter of taste. There’s nothing wrong with tidy endings, necessarily, I just don’t love them most of the time. Somehow they’re less satisfying for me than slightly messy endings, but that’s just me.

  • Carrie K. April 22, 2010, 8:27 am

    I must have read the ending differently, because I thought Marlena killed August and it got blamed on Rosie. Hmmmm, I need to go back and look at the ending again, I think!

    • Kim April 24, 2010, 7:44 am

      Carrie K.: I initially thought Marlena killed August too, but after re-reading the section I’m pretty sure it was Rosie. I love the way the opening is deliberately vague about it though — very suspenseful.

  • Jeane April 22, 2010, 8:32 am

    I liked it alright, but I thought the part of the ending where he ran back to the circus seemed a little forced. My review is here

    • Kim April 24, 2010, 7:45 am

      Jeane: I didn’t really see that part coming, myself. I’m not sure if it felt forced or not, but I remember I was happy he actually got out of the nursing home!

  • Steph April 22, 2010, 8:36 am

    Thanks for this review, Kim. I bought this book and then promptly decided that maybe I wouldn’t like it (for no real reason), and thus haven’t touched it since! Your review has made me think that I should actually give it a try this summer.

    • Kim April 24, 2010, 7:46 am

      Steph: I think this would be a perfect semi-intellectual summer read. It goes really fast and the writing is beautiful, but there’s enough substance in it that I didn’t feel like it was just fluffy. I enjoyed it despite some initial skepticism.

  • Jackie (Farm Lane Books) April 22, 2010, 8:36 am

    I LOVED this book! I’m with your book group on the ending though – I liked the way everything was wrapped up at the end. It was a bit cheesy, but it was so heartwarming that I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    • Kim April 24, 2010, 7:48 am

      Jackie: It was heart-warming, no doubt, and I suppose if I were less of a scrooge I wouldn’t have minded 🙂 I guess with tidy endings I just feel like they’re a little unrealistic, like life doesn’t work out tidy most of the time so why should that happen in books? But sometimes it’s nice to be in a place where things work out like that too 🙂

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) April 22, 2010, 11:20 am

    Well, now I’m curious about the ending. This is in my TBR pile – hopefully I can get to it this summer.

    • Kim April 24, 2010, 7:48 am

      bermudaonion: Yes, I hope so too. I’d be curious what you think of the ending as well!

  • Jeanne April 22, 2010, 12:06 pm

    I love everything about this book, including the tidy ending. Sometimes a story should have a happy ending. Or two. Or three, like The Lord of the Rings.

    Also I loved the way the book skipped back and forth from Jacob’s memories to what his life is like in the old-age home.

    • Kim April 24, 2010, 7:49 am

      Jeanne: I loved the structure of this one too — seeing both Jacob’s was so interesting to me.

  • Louise April 22, 2010, 12:34 pm

    I never really got around to read this one. I remember I gave it to my sister one year for Christmas, but not even sure she has read it either. Something about circus’es that just don’t appeal to me. But judging from your review, it sounds like it really is a great read.

    • Kim April 24, 2010, 7:50 am

      Louise: I didn’t think I’d be that into circuses either, but this book made them really fascinating. A lot of what happened with traveling circuses around this time is almost weirder than anything she could have made up.

  • Ardene April 22, 2010, 1:00 pm

    I listened to this on audiobook a year or so ago, and the readers, David LeDoux and John Randolph Jones, are wonderful! It made for a highly entertaining ride home after work.

    • Kim April 24, 2010, 7:50 am

      Ardene: Ooo, interesting. I bet this would be great on audio.

  • Stephanie April 22, 2010, 3:37 pm

    I love love LOVED this book. I kept having it pushed on me by my mom and I thought it sounded strange. I finally gave in and read it and I am so glad I did!

    • Kim April 24, 2010, 7:50 am

      Stephanie: It was a lovely book, one I’m certainly glad I read.

  • Julie April 23, 2010, 6:22 pm

    I think I might be the only person on the planet who didn’t really like this book. I read it several summers ago, way before I started to blog, so I don’t have a review written of it. I can’t actually remember what I didn’t like about it, but it just didn’t connect with me for some reason. Maybe it was the hype around it and my expectations were too high. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    • Kim April 24, 2010, 7:51 am

      Julie: I tend to not love books if I read them with too much hype — that’s exactly what happened earlier this year with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I’m glad I read this one outside all the hype, I’m sure that helped me enjoy it more.

  • Elise April 24, 2010, 3:59 am

    I read this book and remember loving it, but also felt slightly the same about the ending. It was all a bit too easy wasn’t it?

    • Kim April 24, 2010, 7:52 am

      Elise: Just a little bit too easy. But I do think it’s just a matter of taste whether the ending works for you or not though, since my book club was so split on that but pretty unanimous about everything else.

  • Lisa April 27, 2010, 8:13 pm

    My book club loved this one–partly because most of them, too, love the neat and tidy ending. I gotta admit that I did love it when Rosie did her thing. My bigger problem was that it was just so simple for Marlena and Jacob to start a new life with all of the animals. I could have done with a little less of old Jacob. But I did really like this book and it made for great discussion.

    • Kim April 27, 2010, 8:43 pm

      Lisa: I loved Rosie at the end. That made me day. I do think the ending was just a little simple, but I think that’s part of what made it so interesting to discuss with other people — we had lots to disagree about.