Water For Elephants – Sara Gruen

I bought a copy of ‘Water For Elephants’ a few years ago after having heard lots of acclaim for it all over the place on its initial release and not really having taken its premise in. The idea of a book combining the circus (I don’t care for clowns) and the Great Depression (which I knew nothing about other than maybe it was… well… depressing) didn’t really seem to be my thing and so sadly it was left languishing on the TBR. So when it was chosen as the next book group choice I was filled with a mixture of ‘oh finally I get to give it a whirl’ and ‘oh dear this probably isn’t going to work for me is it’. Sometimes though great successes come from low expectations…

Sara Gruen can certainly describe something vividly if ‘Water For Elephants’ is anything to go by. I don’t think I have read a book that has captured me quite so much in the world it creates for quite some time. In this case, through the eyes of protagonist and narrator Jacob Jankowski after the death of his parents, loss of his inheritance due to the financial climate and with nowhere else to turn, we are thrown into the world of the 1930’s circus and ‘Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth’. Here he joins a world of underdogs, freaks, misfits and the beautiful ‘star of the show’ Marlena who is married to the tyrannical and rather unhinged animal trainer August. Gruen slowly sets up a love triangle which you have an inkling from the prologue could end in disaster.

It might sound rather like a typical love story and indeed could be if it weren’t for the setting, animals and most effective interspersed chapters where we find Jacob narrating from an old people’s home in his nineties. This added a certain something to the novel as we see how a man who lived a rather adventurous life, as we come to learn through his memories of the circus, and yet has now been pretty much dumped in a home where no one knows his past and no one really cares, with the exception of a rather delightful nurse called Rosemary. This to me actually made the whole novel all the better, and could have been a novel in of its own in many ways, as it added a rather bittersweet note to the book and gave you pause between the thrills and spills of his life in the 1930s.

Clearly Gruen had done a huge amount of research for this book, as explained by the authors note at the end, and the circus itself was incredibly vivid both in its glamorous ‘working’ glory and the rather dark and horrendous ‘behind the scenes’ aspects. Yet in some ways this occasionally was at the expense of some of the characters and some of the story. The plot is incredibly tight and keeps you turning the pages but then some strands suddenly end, or characters suddenly vanish with no real explanation and it slightly broke the spell Gruen so wonderfully weaved because I found myself thinking ‘oh so so-and-so has gone, maybe Gruen didn’t need them anymore’. Also despite Jacob being so wonderfully written characters like Marlena, August and Walter the Clown seemed more two dimensional. I came away having being thoroughly entertained but also left wanting to know why August was such a psychopath, why Marlena allowed herself to be in the position she was and how Walter ended up this bitter dwarf who then played clown. But then really I think the circus and Rosie the Elephant, who I loved, were maybe meant to be the secret stars of this book.

That said ‘Water For Elephants’ is a truly cracking read. I was occasionally frustrated I couldn’t simply sit and read it all in one go because the world Gruen created I really wanted to be a part of and stay in. It was a book I would simply take to read a few paragraphs of whilst boiling the kettle or walking down the stairs (dangerous) and was constantly in my hands whenever I had the chance.

Pages were quickly turned, I was often shocked at the way the people and animals were treated, two themes which Gruen explores, and I liked the fact that though the Great Depression was there in the pages it loomed darkly in the background not taking over the whole book yet letting its presence be very much known. Again this isn’t the most perfect book I have come across but its one I thoroughly enjoyed and one that I think will stick with me for the atmosphere Gruen created and the sense of having actually been right there with her characters and almost lived it all myself. 8.5/10

I bought this novel from a chairty shop a couple of years ago, it was originally bought in ‘Manali Bookshop, Anjuna, Goa’ apparently according to the sticker on the back, isn’t it lovely its travelled like that?

I had thought I might try and do something a tiny bit different with my thoughts on ‘Water For Elephants’, I was going to do a fair whack about what I thought and then I would do a smaller portion about at the group thought, however it seemed that my thoughts (as I wrote the actual main part of the post before I went) were pretty much along the same lines as everyone else’s both in the pro’s and con’s camp. We did all agree that we much preferred the old ‘unisex’ cover to the rather more ‘chick lit’ cover, these are important things after all.

I am finding it really interesting that so far in 2011 with this and with Brighton Rock’ it’s the books that are making me think about reading and writing that seem to be sticking with me the most so far over the ones I out and out love. I wonder if this is a trend that will continue.


Filed under Hodder & Stoughton, Review, Sara Gruen

17 responses to “Water For Elephants – Sara Gruen

  1. I think I filed my thoughts on this as ‘entertaining and easy’ I have to confess though that I found the authors notes at the back more interesting than the book (although I did very much enjoy the book)

    I’m interested in seeing the film even though Reece Weatherspoon is not at all how I envisioned Marlena.

  2. I totally agree with you…not the best book ever, but I still remember it years after I read it. Very bittersweet. Just do yourself the hugest favor, and DON’T read Ape House. It is awful.

  3. I ve heard a lot of american bloggers go on about this book ,it seems a welll written story ,but the circus has never apppealed to me for some reason ,know she has a new book out so may look at that she seems a good writer ,all the best stu

  4. This was very well done as an audio, too – different readers for ‘Old Jacob’ and ‘Young Jacob’. I loved it!

  5. Your review is “right on”. I didn’t want to read it, yet, I couldn’t put it down. I thought it not that well written, but, the characters and the story have stayed with me. I cared not a whit about circus life, but, in Gruen’s story, it came alive for me. Circuses and horse races seemed to become a catch-all for those on the fringes or those just plain out of luck during the Depression. Rosie the elephant, to me, was the main character. I can still see the scene where it is discovered that Rosie hears in a different language.

    I don’t like the new cover at all. The original one grabbed me right away (I must admit, I often judge a book by its cover). My book group responded in much the same way.

    I will be most interested in your take on the Duchess of Devonshire’s book.

  6. I think this is the best review I’ve read yet of this book. I felt pretty much the same way you did about it. Loved the circus details, not so much the characters and the storyline felt too melodramatic at times. A good, entertaining read but nothing deep.

  7. Wonderful review, Simon. You have wrapped up how I felt about this one when I read it and I completely agree about the covers. It is such a cheap marketing ploy.

  8. I love your reasons for your initial resistance! Although I am not a circus fan, I love the Great Depression. (Maybe because I am so depressing? or depressed?) You make the book more appealing than I was expecting.

  9. hoddertworoads

    A note here from the publisher (Lisa Highton Two Roads Books)on why publishing can be so brilliant and so frustrating at the same time. I love Water For Elephants, I know it’s a rattling good story with a fascinatng setting and a crowd pleaser…and yet, it’s never had the sales here to match the love.

    Over 3 million copies in the States, sold in 32 territories, book group favourite (I think it’s now illegal to have a book group in the US without reading it) etc etc and yet the UK has been a tough nut to crack.

    I first published this book in the UK in hardback on the Hodder imprint (2006) with the US jacket you like. Despite its growing success in the US it made little headway here. Over the next two years I reissued it in paperback with three (yes, three) variations of the US (now iconic) jacket and barely made a dent. In 2008 I switched tack and put the Louise Welsh(ish) circus performer on the front. Slightly more success and it’s ticked over nicely for almost three more years. But still no cigar.

    Finally, the film looks like getting the message out there for us. When I announced Two Roads last year I moved WFE over to the new imprint to accompany Sara’s new book APE HOUSE, which publishes next month. The film tie in publishes soon. The film tie in cover will be its 6th set of new clothes.

    And is there a moral to this story?
    Never ever give up – one day it just might happen.

    Thanks for reading it and your great review.

    I’ll keep you posted!



  10. A great review – totally my experience with this book too! I bought it in New York, mainly because I loved the cover and it was everywhere (this was about three years ago I think). Once I got home, the initial excitement had worn off, and I kept picking it up, but it never seemed like the right time to read it – I was never in the right mood. Eventually I dived in, and it was a revelation! You’re absolutely right – it’s the reality of the world that Gruen creates that captivates you, and it is a real page turner.

    Thanks for reminding me how much I loved this book (again, the original cover is the best!) I’m intrigued to see the film, but not sure if it can match up to the joy and escapism of the book.

  11. One of my favorites; glad to read that you enjoyed it as well. I am looking forward to the film, but am a bit sad to see that Reese Witherspoon was selected – I hope I stand corrected and that she does a phenomenal job, but she is just not quite the person I would have thought of for that role.

  12. Interesting review, Simon, and I love that the publisher left a comment explaining about the cover changes and lack of success here in the UK compared to the US. I wonder what it is about this book that just hasnt grabbed readers this side of hte pond?

    Personally, I’ve never been interested in reading it, mainly because of the circus element. (I hate the circus — and, like you, I also hate clowns! They actually freak me out, I don’t why kids are supposed to love them as they’re so bloody creepy.) But I think some of my wariness is to do with the hype I’ve seen about it on US-based blogs.

    Still, it’s great to read your review and to find out it’s an OK read after all.

  13. I won a copy from Two Roads via Twitter last week & looking forward to reading it. It has been on my wishlist for some time but other books called out to me before it again and again. I’m expecting it to be an absorbing read that is a little-removed from my usual reading (which is eclectic anyway but I do tend towards books slightly heavier). Like you, I love when my expectations are challenged.

    Although I don’t like circuses I find their history fascinating (also interested in freak shows); Nights at the Circus and Geek Love are two of my all-time favourite reads. I also love Depression-era set literature.

    It’s interesting that the older cover(s) didn’t do well when we all seem to prefer it; the new one is non-decript, so that it could almost represent any romance story (I also have an impression of South-American/magical realism from it for some reason – maybe the colours?)

  14. Dot

    I think I may have to get a copy of this, sounds very good. Will you go and see the film when it comes out?

  15. this book has been in my TBR pile for ages and I’ve been avoiding it for the exact same reasons you mention…I’m doing a “from the stack challenge” that began last year and continues this year so its turn will come, and your review makes me look certainly more forward to it than I was before.

  16. Pingback: Presumptions, Assumptions & Hype « Savidge Reads

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