Review: Water for Elephants

water for elephantsName of Book: Water for Elephants
By: Sara Gruen
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Copyright Date: 2006
Number of Pages: 335 (hardbook)
Format: Fiction
Reason for Reading: mother-in-law recommended it and lent it to me from her Kindle
Rating: A

Jacob Jankowski is in his early nineties when we first meet him. He lives in a nursing home. As the story progresses, we get the story of Jacob’s days with a traveling circus during the days of the Great Depression in pieces through flashbacks as he goes in and out of reveries.

At twenty-three, Jacob was about to take his final exam to become a veterinarian when he receives the news that both of his parents have died in a car accident. Jacob’s grief is violent and irrational. He doesn’t finish his test, packs up a few belongings and starts walking to nowhere. He eventually hops a train that happens to belong to Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.

His adventures on the train are wild and unpredictable. The circus is a completely different world with its own set of rules. People get thrown off the trains. August, the animal trainer, is sadistic and cruel to the animals and people around him. Uncle Al, the circus owner, is unscrupulous and conniving.ย  The circus peeps suffer for their superiors’ ill ways.ย  Jacob struggles in this environment save for when he is with the animals. His time with the circus is short-lived but full of strife, most of it stemming from his attraction to August’s wife.

I was very dubious about this book. Initially, I had no desire to see it. Circuses make me uncomfortable so I didn’t think I would enjoy reading a story with the circus being it’s primary character. However, I was utterly wrong. Gruen’s research was so thorough that I couldn’t help but be fascinated by all of the details and secrets of circus life that I was learning. The story was engaging and the characters well-fleshed. I especially enjoyed the older Jankowski. I felt like he was a real, living being.

The story unexpectedly captured my heart and I plowed through it in a couple of days. I am glad I went out of my comfort zone and picked this one up.

water for elephant movieThe Movie:

After having read the book, I was really excited to see the movie. Before reading it, I was on the fence. I only wanted to see it because Reese Witherspoon was in it.

Overall, I thought the movie was well-done. It brought the circus to life, which was the most rewarding aspect for me.ย  I was a little annoyed by some of the changes they made in terms of sequence, but I suppose I understand why they made the changes they did. I still think it would have been interesting if they had just left those parts alone, but hey, I don’t make the movies. I just enjoy them. Despite these few changes, the movie was enjoyable and well done. For the most part, it did justice to the book.

But of course, it goes without saying, the book was better than the movie. The movie was like cake.

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20 Responses to Review: Water for Elephants

  1. Kay says:

    I’m glad you took the plunge and read this one. I read it with my book group and I was not terribly enthusiastic about it at first either. I’m not much of an animal book reader and also not a big fan of the circus. However, wow is all I can say. I’m looking forward to seeing the movie at some point – probably after the DVD comes out. This one really grabs your heart unexpectedly.

  2. Kimberly says:

    You know, I think I’m the only person who had a problem with this book. Well, not a problem, per se . . . but I got it as a gift a couple of years ago and just could not get into it. I put it down fully intending to try again at some point, but that point hasn’t happened yet. (It’s way down on my Goodreads queue, though!)

  3. Heather says:

    I’ve been on the fence with this one since I have a hard time with animal cruelty depictions…sigh. Maybe I should just get over that and plow through the story. Everyone says it’s great. Great review!

    • jehara says:

      I hear ya on that. I had no idea there was animal cruelty before I picked it up. I struggled to read those parts and I couldn’t watch those parts in the movie.

  4. izzybella says:

    I loved the book, but I can’t bring myself to see the movie. Maybe on DVD. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • jehara says:

      I couldn’t wait to see the movie after I read the book. Before I read it, I was on the fence about seeing the movie. Weird, yes?

  5. Margot says:

    I have the book but haven’t read it yet. I did see the movie. (Sometimes it’s better for me to see the movie first.) At first I was disappointed in the movie because I didn’t think Reese Witherspoon actually played the part. I never forgot she was the actress, not the character. What I did like, and have thought a lot about, was all the background parts – the depiction of the depression and all the unemployed people traveling around and those old circus acts that people were so caught up in. Today we are too jaded to think that would be entertaining. Overall, it was a good story.

  6. Staci says:

    Well, after your great review of the movie I will have to watch it. I was afraid that it wouldn’t live up to the book which is one of my favorites ever!!

    • jehara says:

      I enjoyed it a lot. Of course the book is better. My husband, who hasn’t read the book, loved the movie. He was disappointed when it was over.

  7. I loved the book but thought the movie was just okay.

  8. Bumbles says:

    I too loved the present-tense Jacob – he had a lot of gumption. I thought she must have done some incredible research too, since the book really came alive for me when he revisited the past. I could taste the dust and see the characters vividly. I was totally surprised by the twist at the end – were you?

    • jehara says:

      I was completely taken aback. I think she did a great job evoking the time and place.

      The version I had contained an interview with Sara Gruen where she talked a lot about the research she did. It was quite fascinating, especially the little tidbits she incorporated in the story that were true.

  9. Esme says:

    I have yet to see the movie- I read the books a few years ago-I was initially hesitant as a circus story did not interest me. How wrong was I. I loved this book.

    • jehara says:

      That is exactly how I felt! I had no interest in the circus aspect but that is ultimately what fascinated me so much. That is what I love about books though-how they can take a subject I have zero interest in and make me interested.

  10. Penny says:

    My mother read this book when it first came out. She said it was awful. Since then I had three or four close friends recommend it to me. I never read it b/c I trusted my Ma over them.
    Then I heard RPattz was playing the lead in the film. I like to read before I see a movie adaptation, so I purchased the book and I couldn’t put it down! I called my Ma and asked if she was sure we had read the same book!
    I am sad to say I have not seen the film. I can’t watch animal violence and I heard there are a few moments in the film that stay true to the book. I’m going to wait until DVD release and fast forward those.

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