January 16, 2010

Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
2006 Harper Perennial
Finished on 1/5/10
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)

Publisher's Description

Orphaned and penniless at the height of the Depression, Jacob Jankowski escapes everything he knows by jumping on a passing train—and inadvertently runs away with the circus. Thrown into the chaos of a second-rate traveling show, Jacob is adrift in a world of freaks, swindlers, and misfits.

Jacob uses his veterinary skills in the circus menagerie and becomes a savior for the animals he so loves, including a baffling elephant named Rosie. He also comes to know Marlena, the enchanting star of the equestrian act—and wife of August, a charismatic but cruel animal trainer. Caught between his love for Marlena and his need for belonging, Jacob is freed only by a murderous secret that will bring the big top down.

Water for Elephants is a dark and beautiful portrait of a crumbling circus. With warmth and whimsy, Gruen depicts an unforgettable world where love is a luxury few can afford.

I bought Water for Elephants at Tanner's Books in Sidney, British Columbia while vacationing in the San Juan Islands in 2007. I had heard great things about the book and, seeing how the author is a fellow Canadian, I was excited to get one from a Canadian bookstore.

I returned from our trip, added the book to a pile on my nightstand and, as usual, it wound up getting shuffled from stack to stack, book shelf to book shelf. This went on for well over two years. The reason was not a lack of interest, but rather a little niggling worry that perhaps the book had been over-hyped. In spite of all the enthusiastic comments from bloggers and co-workers, I still found myself gravitating toward other books. Finally, I decided to give it a chance, hoping to end 2009 with a bang. Being the slow reader that I am, I was a bit too optimistic and didn't finish until the first week in January. But, I wasn't disappointed and my first book of 2010 is most definitely a winner!

Told in flashbacks, we are drawn into Jacob Jankowski's story, both as a young orphan and that of an aging man living out the remaining days of his life in a nursing home. I fell in love with the older Jacob. He reminded me so much of Patrick Delaney, Jonathan Hull's central character in Losing Julia. Like Patrick, Jacob is much more likely to remember the days of his youth rather than his current age or, for that matter, simple words.

I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other.

When you're five, you know your age down to the month. Even in your twenties you know how old you are. I'm twenty-three, you say, or maybe twenty-seven. But then in your thirties something strange starts to happen. It's a mere hiccup at first, an instant of hesitation. How old are you? Oh, I'm—you start confidently, but then you stop. You were going to say thirty-three, but you're not. You're thirty-five. And then you're bothered, because you wonder if this is the beginning of the end. It is, of course, but it's decades before you admit it.

You start to forget words: they're on the tip of your tongue, but instead of eventually, dislodging, they stay there. You go upstairs to fetch something, and by the time you get there you can't remember what it was you were after. You call your child by the names of all your other children and finally the dog before you get to his. Sometimes you forget what day it is. And finally you forget the year.

Actually, it's not so much that I've forgotten. It's more like I've stopped keeping track. We're past the millennium, that much I know—such a fuss and bother over nothing, all those young folks clucking with worry and buying canned food because somebody was too lazy to leave space for four digits instead of two—but that could have been last month or three years ago. And besides, what does it really matter? What's the difference between three weeks or three years or even three decades of mushy peas, tapioca, and Depends undergarments?

I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other.

I love narratives told in alternating time frames and I especially love reading the wise and honest insights of the elderly. Jacob is a tender soul whose only desire is to be treated like a human being and not like a horse (or elephant!) put out to pasture.

Age is a terrible thief. Just when you're getting the hang of life, it knocks your legs out from under you and stoops your back. It makes you ache and muddies your head and silently spreads cancer throughout your spouse.

Metastatic, the doctor said. A matter of weeks or months. But my darling was as frail as a bird. She died nine days later. After sixty-one years together, she simply clutched my hand and exhaled.

Although there are times I'd give anything to have her back, I'm glad she went first. Losing her was like being cleft down the middle. It was the moment it all ended for me, and I wouldn't have wanted her to go through that. Being the survivor stinks.

I used to think I preferred getting old to the alternative, but now I'm not sure. Sometimes the monotony of bingo and sing-alongs and ancient dusty people parked in the hallway in wheelchairs makes me long for death. Particularly when I remember I'm one of the ancient dusty people, filed away like some worthless tchotchke.

I have never been to a circus, but thanks to the HBO series, Carnivale, I had no trouble envisioning Jacob's experience with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. If anything, I pictured most of the book's characters as those in the HBO show. Gruen's meticulous research and attention to detail resulted in an outstanding tale of the hardship endured by not only the animals, but by their caretakers and by Depression-era circus performers. Personally, I can't imagine ever dreaming of running away with the circus. And, after reading this book, I can say with absolute certainty that I have no desire to even see a circus. Not on my bucket list!

I haven't heard much about the author's other novels (Riding Lessons and Flying Changes), but I'm willing to take a chance and at least give the first a try. I'm also curious about her upcoming release of Ape House (September 2010). For those of you who haven't read Water for Elephants, wait no longer! I can assure you that the hype is well-deserved. This one's a winner!


  1. Great review Les. I loved this book as well.

  2. Absolutely, I completely agree. It's one of my favorite books ever. Glad you enjoyed it!

  3. I loved this book when I read it a few years ago! I'm glad you got to it and then you liked it as much as I did.

  4. I read it, but it was hard. I can read people murder mysteries forever, but hurt an animal in a book, and I can't take it.

  5. I really enjoyed this glimpse into a depression-era circus. So glad you enjoyed the book.

  6. Anonymous7:49 PM

    I really enjoyed this one. I read it with my book group last year, I think. Quite a lot of discussion I remember. Glad you got to it and that it was a good experience for you.

  7. I loved this book and I'm glad you did too. Reading your review really brought the book back to me.

    Loved this comment: "Jacob is a tender soul whose only desire is to be treated like a human being and not like a horse (or elephant!) put out to pasture."

    Lovely way to put it.

  8. I loved this one, too. The audio version was outstanding!!

  9. This book is truly wonderful, isn't it? Great review.

  10. This book led to my watching the Carnivale series, which was weird and enjoyable.

  11. Diane - Thank you! Have you read any of her other books?

    Melissa - It's definitely a keeper! I'd like to give it a listen on audio, as well. Thanks for stopping by.

    Tammy - I'm glad I wasn't disappointed, after all that hype.

    Pam - It was a difficult read, at times. Gruen did a great job with the characterization of August. He's one of those characters I really loathed. I think I'd like to see the movie (if it ever gets filmed), but the animal cruelty scenes would be horrible to watch.

    Framed - Me, too! I'm anxious to see what her upcoming book is like.

    Kay - I'll bet it would be a great book to discuss with a book club. It's one of the books that will stay with me a long time. I have such a visual impression of the entire work. The author really did a nice job with all the details.

    SuziQ - I loved the older Jacob and was very happy with the final chapters.

    JoAnn - Good to know. I'm finding I enjoy listening to books that I loved reading. I'm currently listening to The Help and it's even better than the book - which I loved!

    Carrie - Thank you. It always easier to write a review when I love the book.

    Bybee - It was a weird, creepy show, wasn't it? Such a shame it was canceled so abruptly.

  12. When we discussed this book in my book club, some of the ladies didn't like the switch back and forth in time but I really liked that, too.

  13. I enjoyed your thoughts on this one. I loved it too and am so glad that you finally finished this one!!!

  14. I loved this book! I'm so glad that you enjoyed it too!

  15. Lisa - I'll bet you had a great discussion! Funny that some of the members didn't like the alternating time periods. I love that sort of thing, if done well.

    Staci - Me, too! I'm really excited about her upcoming release. Wonder if it will be as good.

    Teddy Rose - I have yet to hear any negative remarks about the book. I can't wait to listen to it on audio now.

  16. I thought this was great too! Her new Ape House certainly sounds curious! I'll be looking for that one.

  17. Tara - Isn't it nice to enjoy a book that has been highly praised and not feel like the odd man out? I really liked this book! Can't wait to see what she has in store for us with Ape House.

  18. I'm glad you liked this book -- I loved it and didn't want you to hate it. :)

  19. Katya - Me, too! Me, too! :)

  20. Anonymous6:07 AM

    I especially loved the ending. What a fabulous, fabulous way to conclude the story!

  21. Bellezza - I loved the ending, too. It warmed my heart.

  22. I'm so glad you loved this one! It is a favorite of mine. I have Riding Lessons and another one that you did not mention (?), but haven't read either of them. I haven't heard any encouraging words to make me want to pick them up. However, maybe Ape House will be along the same lines as this one. I'm looking forward to it.

  23. Joy - It's definitely going on my lifetime list of favorites, that for certain! I'm looking forward to Ape House, too. Not too sure about her older titles. Nobody seems to have anything to say about them. I suppose I could read the reviews on Amazon, but I don't always agree with the majority over there.


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