Matt's Reviews > Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
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's review
Apr 02, 2008

it was ok
bookshelves: contemporary-literature
Read in April, 2008

April 24, 2008 edition of Coastal View News

The glitz and grit, glam and sham of depression-era circus life limps along in Sara Gruen’s “Water for Elephants” with little aid from her shoddy prose, predictable plot and underdeveloped metaphor. Although the book has a flashy appearance and is easily digested, it offers less nutritional value than promised.

When his parents suddenly and tragically die, Jacob Jankowski quits veterinarian school at Cornell University just before graduation and finds himself aboard a circus train. The Great Depression is in full swing, jobs are scarce and the likelihood of Jacob being offered a position aboard the second-rate Benzini Brothers circus is even slimmer. Luckily the circus is in need of a veterinarian and Al, the greedy and miserly ringmaster of the circus, decides not to pass up the opportunity to underpay his “Cornell-trained” vet.

Jacob quickly earns his keep by maintaining the menagerie, but because his position is awkwardly located somewhere in-between the working crew and the performers, he grapples with the sharp divide between labor and the elite. He works with both classes, and thus appreciates the benefits of associating with the higher society while at the same time sympathizes with the less-fortunate workers.

Ultimately it is two sets of relationships that define Jacob’s story, a story which “parallels the Biblical story of Jacob.” The first defining relationship is between Jacob and Marlena, who is a performer in the circus and wife to August, a bipolar and oft-violent man. Jacob is enamored with Marlena from the moment he sets eyes on her, but his up-and-down relationship with August results in repeated attempts by Jacob to suppress his urge to act on his desires. Only once does Jacob fail to control himself, and although August is not justified in suspecting the truth of Jacob’s feelings, his on-again off-again rage puts everyone in a pickle.

Meanwhile, Jacob is also fostering a second relationship, this one with an apparently obstinate bull elephant named Rosie, who is purchased by Al when another circus goes under. Jacob’s natural affection for animals and his Polish background leave him uniquely equipped to handle this once passed-over beast and to turn her into a star.

As the behind-the-scenes drama in the Benzini Brothers circus is developed, the perspective in the novel switches back and forth between Jacob in the central story and Jacob as an old man of “90. Or 93. One or the other.” The younger Jacob is caring and cordial, while the older Jacob is cranky and more obstinate than a thousand elephants.

Gruen sets her story in a depression-era circus, a second-rate one at that, in an attempt to redeem the freak show, the workingman and the downtrodden; to show that the fine line between illusion and reality is finer than most people imagine. The book described by one critic as an “escapist fairytale” embraces the impulse to flee the dingy world of reality to participate in all that is glittery.

These may be interesting ideas, but in “Water for Elephants” Gruen fails to develop them to a point of profundity. One need not have a penchant for self-spoiling to predict what is going to happen next in this book, with the unintentional red herrings—the death of Jacob’s parents and the story of two forgotten comrades—falling into nothingness. The prose is pedestrian and the plot is implausible in the most obnoxious sort of way. Astute readers might not doubt whether the events in this novel could possibly develop, but they should doubt whether such is the way people think, act and interact.

The redeeming quality of this book is a fanciful look at circus life the way it used to be. There must be something intrinsically interesting in the big top—the fat lady, the elephant and the clowns—because the intrigue in “Water for Elephants” does not come from within.
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03/13/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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Suzanne wow, that was a scathing next-to-last paragraph you wrote! Probably you should give it 1 star.


Lynn I think you may not be old enough to appreciate this book. Read it again in 40 years.


Jean Good point Lynn- much of our perspective comes from our own experiences, so it only makes sense that the 20 year olds get something completely different than the 50 year olds reading this book. I took it for what it was- an easy backyard weekend read. I do like Matt's note about the book lacking nutritional value... right in there with reading weekend cerebral junk food!


Bethann I agree with your review. Generally, this book is a little fluffy and often poorly executed. It's refeshing to read a honest, critical review. It seems like everything on here gets rated three stars or more, regardless of it's actual literary merit. I thought the redeeming quality about this book were the sections that focus on the 90 (or 93) year-old Jacob. It was a very frank look into the life of a neglected senior and I appreciated that. I think it is a little condecending of the ladies to suggest that you need to be older to appreciate this novel though. That's kind of the point of good literature, isn't it? You don't need to fit into a certain catagory in order for a good book to get to you. If the book fails to do that, it's not fair to blame it on the reader. I personally was touched by the depiction of old Jacob, but just because you weren't doesn't mean you are too young to appreciate it.


Patti So true about the red herrings...especially the demise of Kinko with no development as to how this was handled when his family came to fetch him. I thought the book was ok -- but certainly does not live up to the hype it is getting. Did I mention that I hate the circus - especially the evil clowns.


Janet Lynn & Jean: I am a 52 year old that agrees with this 28 year old. Though I seem to be in the minority of liking the transition between old Jacob and young Jacob, I completely agree with this review.


message 7: by Rebekah (new)

Rebekah I am 20 years old and I loved it. I think a lot of people forget to look at the times when reading a novel. Things were much different in the years where the setting of Water For Elephants takes place. It was a time when people didn't speak out against authority which in this case Marlena's husband is to Jacob.
Yes, he is cranky in the 'present" setting but he's alos older, lost his wife, is no longer a part of the circus and it seems his family doesn't really give a damn about him so what is there to really be happy or look forward to?
I think his crankiness is quite funny and actually adds to the story.
It's a literary read without much of the outer dialogue but much more inner monologue and a lot of the story is about seeing Jacob develop and figure out who he is after leaving school and losing his parents.
All in all I loved the book.


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