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Water for Elephants

  • Jun 22, 2010
Water For Elephants brings readers into the nursing home life and memories of ninety-(or ninety-three, he isn’t sure) year-old Jacob Jankowski, a cantankerous yet lovable old man who once worked on the circus. The prologue immediately draws readers into the excitement, complex love, and drama of life under the Big Top when the circus performance erupts in disaster and chaos, leaving Jacob to witness a scene that he will not reveal for the next seventy years. Though readers know the secret even before the first chapter, the unknown motivations behind it propel the story forward with a suspense that is only released when the scene replays near the novel’s end and readers learn the entire truth.
Jacob, both as a young and old man, is an engaging and realistic character. He only reveals, cautiously, that he worked on a circus for almost seven years when a fellow home resident claims to have carried water for elephants (“Carried water for the elephants indeed. Do you have any idea how much an elephant drinks?”). As Jacob sits and grumbles in the home, the ghosts of his past (which, when described in Jacob’s voice, aren’t such an offensive cliché) rattle around and raise his circus memories.
Sara Gruen seamlessly alternates between Jacob’s “vacuous present” in the nursing home and these memories. Twenty-three-year-old Jacob narrates the second chapter. He is studying at Cornell to become a veterinarian, agonizing over his virginity, when an unexpected tragedy leaves him without family or possession. Without direction to his life, he jumps a train and finds himself a part of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show On Earth. As his education quickly promotes him from shit-shoveler to manager of the menagerie, he just as quickly learns the brutal hierarchy, scandalous side-shows, and wretched magnificence of the traveling circus, as well as the deplorable measures it will take to compete with the Ringling Brothers. Jacob falls in and out of favor with August, the charismatic but dangerous ringmaster, and unsuccessfully attempts to suppress his desperate love for Marlena, the pink-sequined horse woman – August’s wife. He must also find a way to teach Rosie, the Benzini Brothers’ first and apparently dim-witted elephant, or get thrown off the train.
In Water For Elephants,Gruen creates a captivating world of the circus that is at once severe and romantic, though the romance between Jacob and Marlena is not altogether convincing. The compelling relationship that drives the story is that of Jacob and Rosie, as he discovers a way to communicate with her and in doing so, saves the circus. The story’s other characters are interesting, though the novel’s greatest achievement is the lore, vocabulary, and lifestyle of the American circus during the Depression that Gruen so meticulously captures. Each new chapter bears a black and white photograph from the museums of different American circuses, adding to the story’s strong sense of time and place. Water For Elephants is a fascinating read with a surprise ending that, for better or worse, diminishes its potency and cements it as a delightful tale.

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More Water for Elephants: A Novel reviews
review by . June 05, 2011
We've all had the pleasure of reading and enjoying a book so much that we simply could not put it down, right?  And we've all heard the expression, "It was a real page turner!"  These both hold true for Sara Gruen's book, Water for Elephants.  It is a mesmerizing and simple tale filled with a brilliant cast of characters, good humor and intense desperation at some moments.  It doesn't try so hard to be elegant and poise, but it does it's best to …
review by . September 17, 2008
Let me be the 1,455th to tell you about this modern classic!    Poignant, funny, happy, sad, violent, tender, this circus story hits every emotion in perfect pitch and pacing, told through the eyes of an old man (not sure how old) abandoned (not quite) by his family (large and loving and dutiful) in a nursing home who is spurred to remembrance of his Depression years on the circus by the sight of a circus outside his nursing home room.    The title job is …
review by . August 06, 2010
As an avid reader of compelling fiction novels, I felt that Sara Gruen's "Water for Elephants" was an absolute treat to read. She effectively used humor without being too overwhelmingly with her wit. The novel is structured in a way - with a an elderly man telling the story of time spend in the circus - that enables to the reader to become completely immersed not only in the plot of the novel, but in the life of the "narrator".       …
review by . June 27, 2010
I could not possibly recommend this book more; it is one of my favorite of all time. There are so many elements to this story; it is a tale of love, of pain and heart ache, of history and hard times, of adventure and a world most of us will never see. The book encompasses an entire life span, and is written so well that even the minute cliche elements feel true. It is filled with gut and heart-wrenching emotions and has a plot that keeps the pages turning. When I finished this book for the first …
review by . March 24, 2010
Absolutely wonderful
Ninety-year old Jacob lives in a nursing home where he spends most days parked in the hallway, waiting for Sundays when a visitor comes. He's excited because a traveling circus has set up next door and he can't wait to go. He flashes back to his youth during the Depression, when he was penniless and joined a third-rate circus as an almost-qualified vet. There, he fell in love with Marlena, the beautiful star horsewoman. Unfortunately, his boss was her brutish husband.       I …
review by . August 11, 2010
This is one of the first adult novels I have read in a while. I say that because I am a YA writer, so I try to ground myself in YA. However, this book was not a chore to read. I heard about this book through the production of its movie. The plot had me interested, so I did a little digging to find the book- it was really hard to find it cheap because it gained popularity so quickly. I got through this book so quickly, I couldn't believe I was done. The way Sara tells this story is amazing. I …
Quick Tip by . August 06, 2010
I almost managed to read this book in one sitting! It is ridiculously entertaining. Romance, danger, men with anger issues, a wise elephant... what more can one ask for in a fun read? I really enjoyed the way the the story was set up, switching from past to present pretty fluidly and with one overarching mystery that resolves itself in a highly satisfactory manner.
Quick Tip by . July 04, 2010
Melville gives new meaning to the word Obsession. But along the way he paints a wonderful potrait of American life on the sea in the mid 1800's.
Quick Tip by . July 02, 2010
Touching story, wonderfully written
Quick Tip by . July 02, 2010
Good book! Very interesting.
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Jacob Jankowski says: "I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other." At the beginning ofWater for Elephants, he is living out his days in a nursing home, hating every second of it. His life wasn't always like this, however, because Jacob ran away and joined the circus when he was twenty-one. It wasn't a romantic, carefree decision, to be sure. His parents were killed in an auto accident one week before he was to sit for his veterinary medicine exams at Cornell. He buried his parents, learned that they left him nothing because they had mortgaged everything to pay his tuition, returned to school, went to the exams, and didn't write a single word. He walked out without completing the test and wound up on a circus train. The circus he joins, in Depression-era America, is second-rate at best. With Ringling Brothers as the standard, Benzini Brothers is far down the scale and pale by comparison.

Water for Elephants is the story of Jacob's life with this circus. Sara Gruen spares no detail in chronicling the squalid, filthy, brutish circumstances in which he finds himself. The animals are mangy, underfed or fed rotten food, and abused. Jacob, once it becomes known that he has veterinary skills, is put in charge of the "menagerie" and all its ills. Uncle Al, the circus impresario, is a self-serving, venal creep who slaps people around because he can. August, the animal trainer, is a certified paranoid schizophrenic whose occasional flights into ...

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ISBN-10: 1565125606
ISBN-13: 978-1565125605
Author: Sara Gruen
Genre: Literature & Fiction
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Date Published: April 9, 2007
Format: Paperback: 350 pages, Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.4 x 1.1 inches
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