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Review: Water for Elephants

October 26, 2010

During the Great Depression, Jacob Jankowski is close to graduating from Cornell University’s Veterinary School when his parents are killed in a car accident.  Devastated, he returns home only to discover that his parents had sacrificed all that they owned to pay for his education.  Broke and shattered, Jacob heads back to school, only to find that he can’t get it together enough to graduate.  At a loss of what to do, he ends up on a train with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth – a traveling circus.  A few of its members take him under their wings and he ends up traveling with the circus as its vet.  He learns about life, love and sacrifice during his time with the circus.

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is told from the point of view of 90 year old Jacob.  He’s living in an assisted living facility when a circus starts putting up tents across the way.  Those tents cause memories to come rushing back to Jacob, and the story alternates between the past and the present day, but mostly focuses on the past.  I was totally engrossed in Jacob’s story from the beginning to the end.   I loved the story of the Depression era circus, and was fascinated with all of the relationships in the book – between circus performers, between humans and animals and between the elderly and their caregivers.  Jacob was a wonderful character and I loved watching him grow and evolve and cheered when he made good decisions.  There was a little twist at the end that I didn’t expect, but I loved it and thought it was perfect.

I also thought the way the elder Jacob was portrayed was terrific.  Even though Jacob needed some help to care for himself, he was a vital person with a (mostly) sharp mind who still deserved to live with respect and dignity.  His family wasn’t always there like they should have been, though, and quite often, they monitored what they said around him.  They seemed to visit out of a sense of obligation, rather than love.  I think that’s something we, as a society, need to work on.

Reading this book made me evaluate the way I think of the circus.  At times, I found it painful to read about the way the animals were treated.  Even when they were treated well, the thought of those wild creatures being caged and herded on to trains just for human pleasure made me cringe.  I doubt I’ll ever think of the circus in the same way.  There are some old circus photos scattered throughout the book and I just loved looking at them and found myself scanning over every detail of them.

Water for Elephants has been made into a movie that is scheduled to be released in April of 2011.  I suggest you read the book now, so you’ll be ready to see the movie when it comes out.

Challenges: Read, Remember, Recommend Fiction Challenge

Review copy provided by Algonquin Books.  I am an Indiebound Affiliate.
64 Comments leave one →
  1. October 26, 2010 5:37 am

    I loved this book. Made me see the circus and the people in a different way in a different time.

  2. October 26, 2010 5:58 am

    Loved this book….read it about 5 years ago.

    Your review is great…helped me remember the story.


  3. October 26, 2010 6:08 am

    Nice review, Kathy. I’ve read quite a few reviews on this book and they have nice things to say about it. I still have not found any interest to read it at the moment, though. But maybe that’s because I’m bogged down with all the pending ones, especially for my challenges.

  4. October 26, 2010 7:00 am

    Loved this book and would like to see the movie – great review Kathy

  5. farmlanebooks permalink
    October 26, 2010 7:09 am

    I loved this book and I am pleased that the trailer looks as though it has captured the same atmosphere. I’m sure that it wont be as good as the book, but I look forward to wqatching it sometime next year.

  6. October 26, 2010 7:17 am

    I really liked how the book gave me a picture of what circus life was like in the Depression. I felt like that part of it was well-researched and it was so interesting.

  7. Caitie F permalink
    October 26, 2010 7:21 am

    This book was fantastic! I am afraid they might cut out some of my favorite parts of the book though in the movie!

  8. October 26, 2010 7:54 am

    This book charmed me and broke my heart into ten thousand pieces. (One of my book clubs is going to read Ape House next and I hear it isn’t nearly as good.) The movie? Ahhhh, well, I sure hope Pattinson brings his A game. If Leo could go from being a twerp to a serious actor, then maybe so can Rob.

  9. October 26, 2010 8:07 am

    I just adored this book. I was surprised that Booking Pap Pap loved it too! I need to re-read it to pick up on all of the biblical references. I think I missed most of them the first time around.

  10. October 26, 2010 9:26 am

    I wonder if it was this book my friend mentioned yesterday, there was something about a circus, and i am pretty sure she said something about an elephant

  11. October 26, 2010 9:30 am

    Eeep–is that a book trailer? Our videos are blocked at work so I’ll have to see if I can sneak on the computer tonight to watch!

    I’m glad you liked this one Kathy. Aren’t the pictures in the book great? And yes, the twist is quite perfect!

  12. October 26, 2010 9:36 am

    I have had this book for ages and I’ve always let other books get in front of it, I’m not sure why. But knowing the movie is coming out and I do want to see it (even though I don’t really care for Robert Pattinson) I think I’ll read it soon. Thanks for the reminder.

  13. October 26, 2010 9:50 am

    This is one of my favorite books of the last few years. I hope the movie will be able to convey some of the wonderful juxtapositions between what happened to young Jacob and what’s happening to old Jacob.

  14. October 26, 2010 10:10 am

    I think I’m all alone when I say that I didn’t love this book. I thought it was well written, and original, but there was something weird about it that didn’t sit right with me. Something I can’t quite put my finger on. Maybe I will give it another shot before I see the movie.

    I’m looking forward to seeing the movie – I love Reese Whitherspoon! 😉

  15. October 26, 2010 10:19 am

    I loved this one too and was so surprised because I didn’t think I would enjoy a book about the circus! I keep waiting to hear great things about her new one, Ape House, but it has been awfully quiet. Will definitely go see the movie when it comes out!

  16. October 26, 2010 10:20 am

    This is such a good book. I can’t wait for the movie!

  17. October 26, 2010 10:52 am

    I got this book such a long time ago, and then went on to read that there were some scenes of abuse towards the animals, and couldn’t make myself pick it up. Reading your review makes me want to try it though, because it does sound like it’s a really good story and that it expounds on a part of society that really goes unnoticed. I am going to have to get this one out and give it a try! Thanks for the excellent review! I am glad you had such a good time with the book!

  18. October 26, 2010 11:36 am

    Did you know that Sara Gruen wrote her first draft of this book during NaNoWriMo a few years back. She has done the same with her new book ‘Ape House.’
    I read this a couple of years ago and absolutely adored it.

  19. October 26, 2010 11:37 am

    I’ve recommended this novel to many friends and relatives. Great story and I loved the “twist” at the end.

  20. October 26, 2010 1:28 pm

    This was one of those books that I didn’t think I would like when my bookclub read it a couple years ago but I ended up loving it for all of the reasons you mentioned. Didn’t know it was being made into a movie – very cool!

  21. October 26, 2010 2:12 pm

    I adored this book and am so excited for the film – really hoping that Robert Pattinson defies expectations. And how thrilling to see Hal Holbrook as the older Jacob? I once saw him live in Portland doing his Mark Twain Presents one-man show – he is extraordinary.

  22. teenagersmom permalink
    October 26, 2010 2:28 pm

    Beautiful review. I’m adding to my list if not there already.

  23. October 26, 2010 2:41 pm

    Oh, I’ve had this one in my TBR stack for so long! Somehow, I just kept picking something else up instead. Maybe your review is just the thing to finally make me crack that cover — it sounds great!

  24. October 26, 2010 2:48 pm

    This is one of my all-time favorite books. I hadn’t seen the movie trailer yet. Not sure if it will do the book justice. I will have to read it again before I go to the movie. Glad you enjoyed it Kathy!

  25. October 26, 2010 2:54 pm

    This sounds like a book you can get completely caught up in. I like that it is challenging the reader to think carefully about the treatment of animals and people.

  26. October 26, 2010 3:56 pm

    So glad you enjoyed this one! I don’t know what keeps me from saying I loved this book..can’t put a finger on it. I liked it, but didn’t love it. I haven’t decided on the movie yet either, I’m sure I’ll end up seeing it eventually, sometime after it comes out on dvd.

  27. October 26, 2010 4:48 pm

    Glad you liked this as I’ve got a copy on my TBR shelf. It reminds me of scenes from the movie Big Fish 🙂

  28. October 26, 2010 5:06 pm

    Wonderful review, Kathy! I would love to read this book, and I will definitely try to read it before seeing the movie. 🙂

  29. October 26, 2010 5:23 pm

    What a great review — and I agree with you, I also thought about circuses in a different light. It makes me sort of embarrassed that we make incredible animals do bizarre tricks just for our enjoyment. I feel a bit uncomfortable about it, and the idea of going to a circus now makes me feel silly, you know?

  30. October 26, 2010 6:22 pm

    I just loved this read and thanks for the info about the movie! WOW!

    I too struggled with what happened to the animals – the reality of the circus is so much different then the fun amazing event I remember of my childhood.

  31. October 26, 2010 6:23 pm

    i read this book a few months ago and absolutely loved it! i had no idea a movie was coming out for it! i can’t wait to see it! thanks for the heads up on that.

  32. October 26, 2010 6:23 pm

    I was neither here nor there about the book, but the movie looks good.

  33. October 26, 2010 8:27 pm

    You captured the story so well. I can’t remember now if you have read Ape House; I look forward to your thoughts on that.

  34. October 26, 2010 8:29 pm

    Wasn’t this good? It made me think so differently about circuses and what it meant to live in a circus during that time.

    I’m excited to see the movie!

  35. October 26, 2010 8:30 pm

    I loved this book. It’s one of my favourite books. I’ll have to check out her new book “Ape House.”

  36. October 26, 2010 8:40 pm

    I absolutely loved this book. I didn’t know there was going to be a movie – now I’m super excited about that. Thanks for letting me know. 🙂

  37. October 26, 2010 8:42 pm

    I really adored this one. Definitely a favorite read of the past few years. Glad you liked it!

  38. October 26, 2010 8:44 pm

    thanks for a great review, I’ve been wanting to read this for some time. I like to read a book after it’s had it’s day in the spot light, just so I can have my own opinion.

  39. October 26, 2010 8:44 pm

    It made a huge impact on me too Kathy. I love elephants and feel drawn to them for some reason and just reading about their abuse killed me. This is one of my favorite reads ever.

  40. October 26, 2010 9:22 pm

    I listened to Water for Elephants on audio and adored it. The readers brought the two Jacobs to life so vividly–especially the elder Jacob. So good!

  41. Veens permalink
    October 26, 2010 9:46 pm

    I am definitely going to check this one out. Sounds like a fascinating read, I love elephants, but was never into circus, i don’t think i have seen one, honestly. I don’t know i was never interested.

    thanks for an awesome review.

  42. October 26, 2010 11:52 pm

    had no idea this book was coming to the big screen! read it a while back and will look forward to the movie. off to see who’s starring…

  43. October 27, 2010 3:02 am

    I sometimes feel like the only person who hasn’t read this book 😛 I love the period it’s set in, as well as the fact that the narrator is an old man.

  44. October 27, 2010 9:39 am

    Yeah, gotta read this 🙂

  45. October 27, 2010 10:53 am

    I’m you liked this one Kathy…I loved it also! I’m excited to see that it will be a movie!

  46. October 27, 2010 11:31 am

    It’s a hype when I thought I heard Rob Pattinson one of the cast of the movie. might try this soon before i watch the movie!

  47. October 27, 2010 4:13 pm

    I remember loving this when I read it. I don’t really think I want to see the movie though.

  48. October 27, 2010 8:07 pm

    I hope Rosie the Elephant gets her due time in the movie! =)

  49. rachel permalink
    October 27, 2010 8:09 pm

    I’ve just finished this one! Really enjoyed it, but for a few very racy parts… why are there always racy parts??

    Excited to hear there will be a movie.

  50. October 27, 2010 8:41 pm

    I am not usually a fan of my favorite books being made into movies, but I am excited for this one!

  51. October 27, 2010 8:55 pm

    I won’t take my kids to the circus specifically for that reason. I have a hard time even seeing birds in cages!

  52. October 28, 2010 9:14 am

    I loved this book as well. Great review!

  53. October 28, 2010 2:31 pm

    Loved, loved the book. I will most likely watch the movie, with low expectations as the movie is never as good as the book. Like the casting of Hal Holbrook, not too sure about Pattinson and Witherspoon. Wonder who will play Rosie? LOL

  54. bethfishreads permalink
    October 28, 2010 2:46 pm

    Wow. Now I know I’ve missed out by not yet reading this one. I won it last year from a blog contest. I really do need to get to it.

  55. October 28, 2010 10:15 pm

    I read this book when it first came out and I’m so excited to read her next one! I love Ms. Gruen’s writing style and oh that twist at the end was just shocking and perfect! Horrifically sad but perfect for the book. Are you JUST now reading this book? Ahhh, it’s been one of my favorites for years! I loved reading your review…took me back to when I first read the book ~ as a matter of fact, I may have to pull it back out and read it again so I’ll be ready for the movie! Thanks for the step back in time!

  56. October 29, 2010 8:16 am

    I haven’t read much about circuses, so this one interests me. Thanks for the review!

  57. October 29, 2010 5:29 pm

    I loved this book and can’t wait to see the movie. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this one (and yes, I totally agree about feeling sorry for the animals that have to live a life in a circus)!

  58. October 30, 2010 1:53 am

    I loved this book! I hope the movie can live up to it.

  59. October 30, 2010 2:37 pm

    I loved this book! Hope the movie is just as good and that they won’t ruin it 🙂

  60. October 30, 2010 3:07 pm

    I can’t wait to see the film. Loved the story.

  61. October 31, 2010 10:42 pm

    I did like this book, but didn’t love it. Still, Gruen’s evocation of circus life in the thirties is brilliant. She really puts us there. But I thought the denouement was pretty obvious (then again, I’m cynical). Looks like it will make an interesting movie, if only for the divine Hal Holbrook…

  62. November 1, 2010 8:57 pm

    I have this one coming in one of my GoodReads bookswaps! I’m really looking forward to it! Thanks for a review that reinforces that it’s one that I’ll love!

  63. November 2, 2010 7:52 pm

    I thought this book was excellent. So glad that you did too! I’m looking forward to the movie.

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