Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

I think I’m pre-menstrual.

Seriously, I’m unstable. Unhinged. I am currently at home alone reading, contemplating homework, and NOW writing this review while my entire family is out eating Chinese food because I needed space. After a fight last night with my mom, my brother thinks I’m stupid and crazy (he actually said those words, so yes, stupid and crazy, WATCH OUT) and everything I do is met with judgement and criticism.

So, I’m hurt and angry and upset, and I wanted my space. Well enough, anyway. I used it to finish this book.

In this case, I have to agree with the popular opinion, because I LOVED this book. I loved it so much it might actually be my new favorite book. It was everything, everything that I wanted, complete with an unfair amount of unputdownableness. I can’t actually find the words to describe how much this book has meant for me in the time that I’ve read it. So let’s start with a summary.

One of the things that stopped me from reading this a long time ago was that I could NEVER find a blurb of what the book was actually ABOUT. And don’t try looking on the book for this blurb, because it’s one of those annoying paperbacks that’s all covered in critical praise. So, you read it here:

Water for Elephants is about a young man, Jacob Jankowski, training to become a veterinarian, about to sit his exams after four years studying veterinary medicine at Cornell. Out of nowhere, the week before his exams, he’s met by the police, who tell him that his parents have died in a fatal car accident. On top of that, their entire estate and practice (his father was also a vet) has been seized to pay off their mortgage and debts. So young Jacob is left with nothing at all. When he fails to sit his exams, Jacob spends some time isolated from society when he is passed by a train, and decides to hitch a ride.

This train, it turns out, is actually a circus; the Benzine Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. At first, he gets a job as a working man; mucking stalls and such. However, when it’s revealed that he has vet training, he is hired on as the show’s vet.

Meanwhile, he meets and falls in love with a performer named Marlena. Insert complications.

Oh, but also- this story is told alongside the story of Jacob Jankowski, now a man of ninety or ninety-three, living in a rest home for the elderly but still in possession of most of his mental facilities and even his body, thinking back on his seven years as a circus vet, and then his life after.

And that’s the story. And it’s amazing. I’m going to say that what really sells it is the FANTASTIC characters. I was in love with Jacob, I really was, but I was also sincerely affectionate for his roommate, a grouchy dwarf named Walter (but only to his friends). There was Camel, an older working-man trying to avoid the authorities and not get redlighted. One of my favorite characters was probably the relatively minor Earl, a security guard who does his job in the most gentle way possible, and is clearly on Jacob’s side.

Then there are the antagonists. Uncle Al, the nearly heartless owner of the Benzine Bros. show, and the dangerous and unpredictable August, the equestrian manager.

Oh, and who can forget the elephant? This elephant was the sweetest. Her name was Rosie, and she was definitely a special creature.

The other selling point, I think, was how wonderfully authentic everything felt. I didn’t doubt for a moment that Sara Gruen did the research (and she did, extensively, as stated in the interview at the back of the book). But everything from descriptions of circus life (it had it’s own entire culture), the language, the interactions between the various characters (working men and performers), and the emotion was all so very real. Oh god, the emotion.

I’m not ashamed to admit this: I almost cried. There was one part, about fifty pages from the end, where my heart was breaking! I still feel terrible thinking back to it! But I can’t tell you what it was, because it’s a hefty spoiler for the older Jacob’s storyline. Just know that it completely wrenched my heart from it’s cold steel socket. And there was even a slightly smaller one earlier on, in the younger Jacob’s storyline.

Finally, the setting was interesting as hell. I mean, this story follows a circus. All of the character socialization takes place on a moving train, and everything that happens happens in context of the fact that they live in a circus; it’s unreal, but at the same time so grounded.

Now, really: if you haven’t read this book, read it now. Now, before the movie comes out. And rather than Robert Pattinson, try to imagine James McAvoy as Jacob- or, to match his red hair, Rupert Grint. I could imagine him in this role. The driving force to my reading the book now is that I needed to read it before the movie comes out, because I do want to see the movie. I’m going to go watch the trailer for it, actually…

I think this book is gaining popularity, judging by the number of people at school I see reading it. Sort of like the Hunger Games, though I don’t think it’s that popular. ANYWAY. This book made me feel things, guys. Everyone should read it. Everyone. OH. But when you do, I enjoin you- after reading through the climax, go back and reread the prologue. See what’s different.

Next on my list, I’ve a couple of books I meant to read a fair time ago, and one I bought myself recently. I have so much on my plate, though, I only gave myself the time to finish this because I really needed it. This semester is already hitting me hard, and it’s not even in full swing yet. So, until next time!

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Published in: on January 17, 2011 at 7:26 pm  Comments (7)  
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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I have a hard time with the Circus setting, because it seems a bit shabby and sinister to me … but that’s probably why it’s also appealing: spectacular shabby. I might give this one a go. It reminds me of books by Robertson Davies, a trio called The Deptford Trilogy, which follows the exploits of two stage magicians in the early 20th century. Sorry for the rough day.

    • Shabby and sinister definitely applies in this case, particularly the longer Jacob is with the show, the more he finds out about the inner workings of the circus world. It really becomes a case of, do as you’re told or face the consequences; and for elderly workers, like Camel, god forbid you exceed your usefulness.

  2. Your heart does not have a “cold, steel socket.”

  3. Holy dear sweet Jesus where does this woman live so I can send her a freaking PULITZER for NEARLY making you cry 😉

  4. […] novel was written by Sara Gruen, of Water for Elephants fame. If you go reread that review, you’ll see that I was quite impressed by Water for […]

  5. […] then I’ll go spend money on it. So yesterday at Borders, I finally bought myself a copy of Water for Elephants. It’s nice to […]

  6. I have just read this book, and agree with everything you said. I actually loved it.


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