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Water for Elephants (2006)

by Sara Gruen

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
29,097118496 (4.06)1 / 912
A novel of star-crossed lovers, set in the circus world circa 1932. When Jacob Jankowski, recently orphaned and suddenly adrift, jumps onto a passing train, he enters a world of freaks, grifters, 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.--From publisher description.… (more)
  1. 91
    Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (Pax_Biblio, starfishian)
  2. 94
    The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (LindsayGentles)
  3. 30
    The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (sturlington)
  4. 31
    Mr. Vertigo by Paul Auster (Smiler69)
    Smiler69: Set during the Great Depression, a young boy is taught how to fly to become part of a travelling vaudeville act.
  5. 20
    The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb: A Novel by Melanie Benjamin (Alliebadger)
    Alliebadger: Both well-written stories about the performing life. Very different sides of it, and in very different time periods, but both well-written and exciting.
  6. 20
    Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter (Pax_Biblio)
  7. 31
    Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand (BookshelfMonstrosity)
    BookshelfMonstrosity: Though Gruen's story is fiction and Hillenbrand's journalistic nonfiction, both reveal relationships between humans and animals in the Great Depression's entertainment field. Each describes the backstage training, care, and abuse of performing animals and people in candid, engaging language.… (more)
  8. 20
    At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen (Eowyn1)
  9. 10
    The spangled road by Borden Deal (VictoriaPL)
  10. 10
    The Circus in Winter by Cathy Day (sibyllacumaea)
  11. 10
    Cat Man: A Novel by Edward Hoagland (Stbalbach)
    Stbalbach: Considered by some (in the business) to be the best (most accurate) circus novel ever written.
  12. 10
    Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (sturlington)
  13. 10
    Holy Fools by Joanne Harris (ecleirs24)
  14. 21
    The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson (heidilove)
    heidilove: If the power of story compels you, you'll like this as well.
  15. 00
    Little Heathens by Mildred Armstrong Kalish (BookshelfMonstrosity)
    BookshelfMonstrosity: Readers of Water for Elephants may enjoy reading this memoir of farm life during the Great Depression; though the experiences are rather different, Little Heathens offers a complementary view of the period.
  16. 00
    Walking on Air by Pierre Delattre (cammykitty)
  17. 00
    Spangle by Gary Jennings (Cecrow)
  18. 11
    The Life She was Given by Ellen Marie Wiseman (Cecrow)
  19. 00
    One Good Dog by Susan Wilson (SATURNBEAR)
    SATURNBEAR: A great story of animals and people coming together and overcoming painful histories.
  20. 00
    The Orphan's Tale by Pam Jenoff (Sanganya)
    Sanganya: Circus

(see all 32 recommendations)

Florida (13)
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» See also 912 mentions

English (1,153)  Spanish (5)  Dutch (4)  Portuguese (Portugal) (3)  French (3)  German (2)  Danish (2)  Finnish (2)  Norwegian (2)  Italian (1)  Swedish (1)  Portuguese (Brazil) (1)  All languages (1,179)
Showing 1-5 of 1153 (next | show all)
Rather underwhelming. There were definitely some good moments in the book, but none that, in my eyes, justified the books mass popularity. ( )
  LaPhenix | Jul 8, 2024 |
“I’m ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other.”

This opener is a classic, an interlude to an old man’s reminiscing of his youth. You’d think, that someone who can’t correctly remember his age, would at best, have blurred memories of his past. But Jacob Jankowski is made of sterner stuff. He may forget the name of the nurse in his old-age home, he may not quite remember his grandchildren or their children, but memories of his youth are as fresh as if they happened yesterday.

Jacob was studying to be a vet when an accident leaves him both orphaned and penniless. In a state of delirium, Jacob begins walking and keeps walking, away from the civilization into some unknown future. And that unknown future brings him to a train, that in its many carriages, carries the magic of an entirely different world, for on this train, travels a circus.

And the drama unravels. There are performers and the workmen, freaks and animals. All the typical circus things. There’s even a gorgeous, Marlena, who is the star performer of the show, who makes her performances come alive with the animals she works with. She’s married to the equestrian director August, the sometimes charming, sometimes abusive man. And of course, Jacob falls for this woman.

What makes this book superlative is that it isn’t just a romance, at least not just between Jacob and Marlena. It is a sketch of the human soul – of how human some animals can be and of how beastly some men.

Sara Gruen’s characters are all strong, heroes and villains alike. But its the side characters whose story adds depth to the emotions. Kinko and Camel, the sort of “roommates” of Jacob or Queenie and Bobo, the dog and the chimp who in their animal-ish sort of way make your heart swell. And of course, Rosie, the elephant. For me, she was the star of this book. Every time August lashed out her or Jacob fed her whiskey to soothe her wounds, were the times that had me welling up.

“With a secret like that, at some point the secret itself becomes irrelevant. The fact that you kept it does not.”
And there is that secret, right towards the end, that the author throws at you. Of course, that’s not what you expected, but you hoped all along while reading the book, that something like that would end up happening.

In Sara Gruen’s own words,

“Life is the most spectacular show on earth”
…and that is exactly what she shows you through this spectacular story about a circus.

Believe it or not, Sara Gruen had never actually been to a circus in her life, before she started writing this book! Surely, you wonder then, where did the inspiration to write this story come from? The author says it all started with an article in the Chicago Tribune in 2003 on Edward Kelty, a travelling circus photographer who travelled across the U.S. following circus trains during the 1920s and 30s. She was so fascinated with the premise and the photographs accompanying the article and those in two other books, that she dropped the idea of the novel she was actually writing, to start one on a circus instead.

Sara Gruen’s favorite character in her book was Rosie (just like mine!). She loved the elephant almost enough to belive that Rosie was real.

Sara Gruen could visualize strongly how her characters would look like and behave if they were real. When asked in an interview who she would like to see cast in the movie, she chose Scarlett Johansson as Marlena (eventually played by Reese Witherspoon), Jim Carrey as August (played by Christoph Waltz). Danny DeVito would have made a great Uncle Al, according to Sara Gruen, but the actor to finally bag that role was no one. This character was eliminated in the movie version.

The film adaptation hit the screens in 2011. ( )
  sanz57 | May 31, 2024 |
I'm marking this "read" for now, although I've only gotten to page 150. It's a struggle to read--I am bored with the characters and plot, the language, everything. It's nothing new (so far). ( )
  prairiemage | May 29, 2024 |
I LOVED this book! Now, granted, it has taken me almost a year to finish. But I have good excuses! I added it to my shelves in May of 2008, and then I didn't actually get it until spring of 2009. I picked it up then and started immediately, and then my life was interrupted by... well, life. Without getting into the messy details, the book was loaned out twice, lost once, halted several times, and put on the back burner more than I care to admit. I had a tough time picking it back up when I was able to do so, as the effect was that the story (for me) had become choppy and confusing. And then in July of 2009, I purchased the unabridged audio version for my mom, who was spending a lot of time in the hospital. I loaded it onto my iPod for her, and she listened to it within a few days, and adored it; she said it was one of the most enchanting stories she'd ever read (and she was a voracious reader, so that endorsement says a lot). After she died, I decided I would give it a try on audiobook, and perhaps I could finally "put it to bed," as the saying goes.

Well, I am SO glad I did so! I started the story over, and was completely enchanted, just as my mom said I would be. Water for Elephants is the story of Jacob Jankowski, who is one of the most endearing characters I have ever encountered. The story begins when he is "...ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other," and goes back in time to recount Jacob's time with The Benzini Brothers Circus. At times heartbreakingly sad, at others joyfully promising, Water for Elephants spares no detail of Jacob's absolutely fascinating tale. I laughed out loud, I sobbed uncontrollably. I cheered Jacob on, and I suffered when he suffered. There was a time when things were so bad for him that I thought perhaps reading this book was a mistake after all; how would I get through so much sadness? But Ms. Gruen brings this tale to a deliciously satisfying end, in a way completely befitting of such a wonderful character.

This book was awesome, and I highly recommend for anyone who enjoys captivating and romantic storytelling! I only wish I had the opportunity to discuss it with my mom. ( )
  kdegour23 | May 29, 2024 |
While indisputably well-researched, the characters in this story, especially Marlena, are flat caricatures. The pacing stutters along as the central character drags us through pointless exposition and the cast of supporting circus workers are largely indistinguishable from one another. Disappointing. ( )
  punkinmuffin | Apr 30, 2024 |
Showing 1-5 of 1153 (next | show all)
It's a favorite of book clubs and reading groups, and is supposedly rife with parallels between the protagonist, Jacob Jankowski and Jacob, grandson of Abraham, in the Bible. I wish one of you would tell me what they are. They are not obvious to me, other than a cryptic "Jacob's ladder" parallel to the ladder on the train cars that give access to the roof and that will be important late in the story. What is obvious to me is this is a book about memory, something elephants are famous for and something humans are famous for treating as reliable when it isn't.
added by paradoxosalpha | editDaily Kos, Limelite (Jul 28, 2011)
 
At its finest, "Water for Elephants" resembles stealth hits like "The Giant's House," by Elizabeth McCracken, or "The Lovely Bones," by Alice Sebold, books that combine outrageously whimsical premises with crowd-pleasing romanticism. But Gruen's prose is merely serviceable, and she hurtles through cataclysmic events, overstuffing her whiplash narrative with drama (there's an animal stampede, two murders and countless fights).
 
What goes on under the big top is nothing compared with the show backstage.
added by Shortride | editTime, Lev Grossman (Jul 16, 2006)
 

» Add other authors (7 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Gruen, Saraprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Abelsen, PeterTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Arduini, Adasecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jones, John RandolphNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
LeDoux, DavidNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Werner, Honijacket designsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
I meant what I said, and I said what I meant...
An elephant's faithful--one hundred per cent!
--Theodor Seuss Geisel, Horton Hatches the Egg, 1940
Dedication
For Bob, still my secret weapon
First words
I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other.
Only three people were left under the red and white awning of the grease joint: Grady, me, and the fry cook. (Prologue)
The idea for this book came unexpectedly: In early 2003 I was gearing up to write an entirely different book when the Chicago Tribune ran an article on Edward J. Kelty, a photographer who followed traveling circuses around America in the 1920s and '30s. (Author's Note)
Quotations
Is where you’re from the place you’re leaving or where you have roots?
I wasn’t aware of dozing, but that’s how it goes these days. I seem to slip in and out of time and space.
With a secret like that, at some point the secret itself becomes irrelevant. The fact that you kept it does not.
Last words
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Publisher's editors
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Information from the French Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
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Wikipedia in English (1)

A novel of star-crossed lovers, set in the circus world circa 1932. When Jacob Jankowski, recently orphaned and suddenly adrift, jumps onto a passing train, he enters a world of freaks, grifters, 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.--From publisher description.

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Book description
Jacob Jankowski is left without money and family when his parents are killed suddenly in an automobile accident. He leaves veterinarian school right before he finishes his final exam and accidentally becomes the veterinarian for the Benzini Brothers Circus. There he meets Rosie the Elephant and Marlene, a beautiful (and married) performer in the circus.

AR Level 4.4, 14 pts
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