Friday, April 15, 2011

Book Review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Algonquin Books, 2006; 335 pages; ISBN  1565124995
My Goodreads Rating: 5 stars

With the film version of Sara Gruen's excellent Water for Elephants coming out next week, I am excited to revisit the book, which I read last year.  I had been meaning to read the novel for two years and it wasn't until I heard there was a movie version being made that I finally checked it out.  I wish I hadn't waited because this is truly a very charming book.  It's got romance, history, adventure, some mystery, and it incorporates animals into the mix of characters.  The setting switches back and forth between present time in a nursing home and a traveling circus in 1932.  Jacob Jankowski is remembering his time with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth circus as him and his fellow nursing home residents are preparing to attend the circus that just came into town.  In his memories Jacob is 23 years old and his parents have just died in a car crash.  He was studying to be a veterinarian at Cornell and in a fateful turn of events he jumps onto a train not knowing that it is a circus train.  When he is found out he gets offered a job as a vet for the menagerie of animals, even though he insists that he never finished his schooling.  In the circus he meets an eclectic cast of characters, including the insufferable and pompous ring master Uncle Al, the beautiful performer Marlena, Marlena's husband August, the cruel animal trainer, and one of the clowns and his dog, Walter and Queenie.  Jacob has to learn quickly and many lessons are harsh, like the practice of redlighting (when circus workers are thrown off the train in the middle of the night to avoid paying them and to basically get rid of them) and how the circus animals are treated.  The Benzini show is in fierce competition with bigger and better spectacles, like Ringling Brothers, so when Uncle Al gets the chance to acquire Rosie the elephant, he does so and has Marlena work with her to put on a dazzling show that will hopefully boost profits and elevate the reputation of the Benzini Bros.  show.  As Jacob and Marlena both fall in love with each other they must deal with the unkind ways of August and the dangers of circus life.  I loved everything about the novel, especially all of the historical details that the author incorporates because they really bring the story to life.  I also loved how the story unfolded and I always had this sense of foreboding throughout the story that compelled me to keep reading.  Gruen also features actual photographs of the circus during the Great Depression, which offered up another way to visualize the events unfolding during Jacob's recollections.  I cannot wait until the movie release and I really want to see what Reese Witherspoon does with the character, because I never pictured Marlena like Reese.  I pictured her dark-haired, with alabaster skin, and with sharper features, but I've liked pretty much every movie she has made, so we shall see.  I recommend reading the book before watching the film if you can, because usually book versions far outshine their movie counterparts.  Here's the movie trailer:

Photo: From website


  1. Hi! I am a new follower through Goodreads! Follow back?

  2. Good review! I wish I had time to revisit "Water for Elephants" because I remember loving it when it was released. I'm not sure about the movie though, because neither Jacob nor Marlena were cast to my satisfaction. I'll watch just about anything with Christoph Waltz, though. :)