Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Where did you get this book: Bought it.

Release Date UK/US: Out now.

For me, Water for Elephants is the kind of book that will stay with you for a long time after you have read it. The testament for this is that I finished this book weeks ago, and had read many books since, but when I thought of a book I wanted to do a review on, this is the one springs to mind. It tells the story of  ninety three years old Jacob Jankowskis, who reminiscences about his life 70 years ago in 1931. Through the grief of losing both his parents in a tragic accident and being left penniless just before his final veterinarian exam, Jacob impulsively jumped on a passing train and leaves his old life behind. Little did he know that this was not a normal train, it’s “Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth” train, the circus full of exotic animals in need of a vet. Jacob also has to deal with his attraction to his new boss’s wife, Marlena.

Jacob was soon in charge of the welfare of the chimps, lions, polar bears, orangutans, llamas, zebras,  giraffes, camels, hyenas, horses and Rosie the elephant to name a few. Trying to do the best he could for the animals at minimal cost should keep Jacob out of trouble. On top of that he has to share a room with Walter, the dwarf performer, who wasn’t happy with this arrangement as August forced him to share a room with Jacob.

The story flits back and forth between a young and present Jacob, which I thought was done seamlessly. It did throw me off a little bit at first to read a book in present tense, but I got use to it very quickly and I was soon caught up in the story. The present Jacob is humorous in his grumpy way and heartwarming at the same time – especially the friendship he develops in the nursing home with the nurse, Rosemary. It is also heartbreaking to read about a man, with a sound mind, being trapped in his aged body. His observations of how the people around him treat him are realistic and have certainly been made me more aware of how I interact with the elderly – especially after reading this:

And those are just the things I know about. There are a host of others they don’t mention because they don’t want to upset me. I’ve caught wind of several, but when I ask questions they clam right up. Mustn’t upset Grandpa, you know.

I’ve decided it’s not about me at all. It’s a protective mechanism for them, a way of buffering themselves against my future death, like when teenagers distance themselves from their parents in preparation for leaving home.

I also think that the archived pictures of the old circus were a nice touch. Although I have been told that the paperback version of the book hasn’t got any pictures (I read it on ebook).

Another topic that has been touched in this book is the class system. The performers always get paid even in the lean time while the workmen might get paid, but it’s a given that the black minority won’t. This was the way of life then and people accepted it as such. It highlights how far we’ve come in our society today.

Of course, the review cannot be completed without mentioning the star of the show, Rosie the elephant. I found Rosie charming and funny. Her mischief was real fun to read about. You can feel the tenderness when Jacob’s voice softened up when he thinks of Rosie and Marlena, which was always full of love and respect. Marlena’s husband, August , was also very well written. He keeps his friends close but enemies even closer. Will Jacob be able to hide his feeling for Marlena without the sinister August ever finding out? August is the only thing that comes between the woman he loves and the elephant he adores.

Ms Gruen has a gift of bringing characters to life. I felt like I was transported back in the time when I read this book. I love it so much I bought a paperback version so that I could give it to my family to read too.

3 thoughts on “Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen”

  1. Ying–
    I’m so glad you liked this book. The story echoed in my mind for a long time, and I’ve recommended it to many people. The paper back DOES have photos, which, as you said, enrich the story’s sense of time and place. I love the exploration of the theme of “running away to the circus”. It was a common theme here in the States when I was growing up. Threatening to run away to the circus made parents sit up and listen, and ended in furious bouts of whispering later after you had gone to bed. It embodied the best hints of daring-do, of tossing aside convention, of living on the edge. A great story, beautifully told.

  2. hello 🙂 I did a blog search for book reviews on water for elephants. I always like to read what others think AFTER I post my review and we both agree that this novel really does transport you. rosie is adorable. Did you read the notes at the end about the two real elephants that inspired Sara Gruen?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.