Rachel's Reviews > Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
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Jan 23, 2008

it was ok
bookshelves: audiobooked

I think I expected too much out of this novel and therefore had room only for disappointment. Though I finished the book in its entirety, I wrote a short review on my blog about halfway through, expounding on the aspects of the book that irritated me. I have adapted it herein.

First, the main "heroine," Marlena, is incredibly flat & boring. The narrator/main character, Jacob, is clearly infatuated with her, but I'm not sure why other than she looks good in pink sequins. She's married to her arrogant, bipolar boss, so maybe there's some sort of damsel-in-distress complex triggered in our hero. Regardless, I don't care about her. She doesn't engage me or hold any allure. The novel really ends up being more of a romance tale, and to be honest I think it would be just as interesting (more so?) without Marlena.

There were several instances of explicit sexual encounters fairly close together in the heart of the novel that annoyed me. I don't inherently react against books with sex, but I do object to explicit, gratuitous sex. It felt more for shock value than actually relevant to the plot or characterization. The instances of it are over-the-top and some even slightly grotesque to the point of distraction. I'm not sure what exactly she was trying to prove ("Look, I can write like a man: men think about sex all the time!"), but it was unnecessary. The crudeness calmed down after a bit, but it distracted me through the center of the novel.

Furthermore, I'm not even sure the narrator is believable/realistic. It takes him too long to figure things out; he likes to describe a scene in excruciating detail before he "realizes what's going on." If I had been standing next to him, by the time he "realizes what's going on," I would have smacked him over the head and left. Too often he encounters situations in a total stupor. OK, so people don't always react instantaneously. But when you describe it in exhaustive detail, it doesn't make me think something is happening quickly. (Speaking of descriptions, every strong smell is described as "overwhelming." Really, is that the best adjective you've got?) Additionally, I can't quite reconcile the young Jacob to the 90/93-year-old Jacob. A lot can change in 70 years, but I can't see the sensitive, humble Jacob I meet in large stretches of the novel with the bitter, crotchety old Jacob I meet in shorter excerpts. Maybe some more explanation of what caused the change would have helped.

The story has so much potential in its unique setting: Depression/Prohibition-era traveling circus. This alone kept me reading because I was curious at least to see where the narration was going. Will it end with Jacob's death or something else? How long does he stay on the circus, etc? So I guess kudos to the author for that: at least the uniqueness of the setting & atmosphere keeps me intrigued.

Maybe I expected too much. Still, I give the book credit: despite my disappointment, I was curious to the end.
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Comments (showing 51-85 of 85) (85 new)

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Marilyn I wish I had read your review before I bought this. I haven'read it yet, but I hate long winded scene set up. I skip over sex discriptors and end up skipping huge portions of a book. I end up angry because I felt as though I was robbed.


Rachel Brandy wrote: "The sex in the book is certainly not extreme but I don't know why it was included - didn't make any sense - like you said it was gratuitous.

I'm not against sex scenes in novels (or film), but in..."


I think you've hit the nail on the head for me as to why I found the sex "grotesque." As far as potential sexual acts, no, it was not nearly as extreme as two girls 1 cup. But it was still poorly, crudely handled which made it bizarre/absurd/grotesque.

I amended my review a bit to explain that I don't have an inherent objection to sex in a novel, but I thought Gruen included it in the novel for shock value, which is just cheap.


message 53: by Mish (new) - rated it 3 stars

Mish Rachel wrote: "I don't have an inherent objection to sex in a novel, but I thought Gruen included it in the novel for shock value"

I don't think it was for shock value - I think it was just poorly imagined/written.


Rachael Wolfe Completely agree about Marlena.


message 55: by Lee (new)

Lee loved the movie...wonder if having those visuals will make the book read better or not? or just ruin the effect of the movie?


message 56: by Megs (new) - rated it 2 stars

Megs T Nelson agreed!!


message 57: by Lori (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lori Also glad that I'm not alone in my thoughts on this book. Could have written the same review as op. not sure what everyone was raving about, but maybe I went in expecting too much as well.


message 58: by Bonnie Lynn (new) - added it

Bonnie Lynn Agree with you re: high expectations. At least you managed to finish the book; I may give it another try someday.


Kimberly I sincerely thought I was the only person alive who did not love this book. Your review and the comments elicited from other readers make me feel so much better about my own opinion. I couldn't care less about the human characters or their sorry plight - the only character I cared about was the elephant!


message 60: by Kate (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kate I liked the book but I agree with you that Marlena was flat and uninteresting. She was a damsel in distress, in pink sequins, who rode some horses. I agree about the sex scenes too. They were so sudden, over-the-top and just weird. Not to mention all the details in the 'cooch' tent and with Barbara and the 8 pagers, but then the only encounter with Marlena and Jacob is super private. Just weird...


message 61: by tim (new) - rated it 1 star

tim Nailed it with this review, and kiddos for being able to finish it despite these major issues a fest i was not able to accomplish!


Heather Palare All spoilers! Do not read if you've not finished the book: I believe the "grumpy" characteristics were quite fitting. Jacob had lived a life of adventure! A man cast aside, forgotten and unable to care for himself when he used to be overly independent to the point of not only saving lives of animals for a living but also saving his wife makes a great deal of sense to me. The sensual scenes were written with tact and thought. I found myself laughing at the frigidity of some reviews here, as I found the erotic scenes to be in good taste. What I found more disturbing and incredibly difficult to read were the animal abuse instances. I'm baffled that folks are so bloody confounded by something as natural as sex, with little mention of animal suffering. The author approached this tastefully as well, sparing us some of the more horrid details of what research has proven to be a very real and unsettling occurrence in the circus back then. I am well read, yet I couldn't put the book down. I was glad to see the main character find some semblance of liberation at the end. I also commend the author for her empathy and recognition of some of the animals that suffered for entertainment purposes. I considered the possibility of Marlena's character being fleshed out a bit more, yet I believe the vagueness of her character added to the allure and mystery of her character, divulging information about her as Jacob discovers/dissembles her. Loved it!


Carrie Eva wrote: "
I could not even finish it. After about 2/3 of it, I cared enough only to thumb to the end and read the resolutions (of the 1930's story and the present day story), both of which were equally unbe..."


"Dramatic yet uneventful" is a great way of describing how I felt after making it nearly 2/3 of the way through. I kept wanting to enjoy the story and hoping it would improve, and frankly was more interested in the fate of Walter and Queenie than in the narrator or Marlena.


Laura Coates I haven't noticed an over use of 'overwhelming' but she probably has seeing as every single animal sits on their haunches.


Kayleigh The heroine isn't Marlena, it's Rosie (the elephant). If you look at the cover of the book it says "a majestic, MUTE heroine." Marlena was far from mute.


Rachel Kayleigh wrote: "The heroine isn't Marlena, it's Rosie (the elephant). If you look at the cover of the book it says "a majestic, MUTE heroine." Marlena was far from mute."

Arguably, shouldn't I be able to determine the heroine without needing a blurb to tell me so? If I need the blurb, perhaps the book doesn't sell itself so well? Secondly, I don't think that blurb was on my copy, perhaps that's a later edition change. Still, you're right "heroine" is far too strong a word for Marlena. The female protagonist-- no, love interest. That's about as dynamic as she gets.


message 67: by The Girl With (new)

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo I'm reading this book for My bookclub,needless to say it wasn't My pick! It's a slow book,and it just annoys Me that Jacob thinks Marlena is something special. She's boring,there isn't any real structure to her character if any,and she just comes off,as a "whoes Me" sorry sack of a "woman". No backbone,no allure. If I were a dude, AND a virgin, I'd be more interested in watching Barbara! There's just no comparison. Big boobies and sexy curves and a gal with experience,or the wimpy,pathedic,most uninteresting girl in the world?! Marlena just falls flat,and leaves A LOT to be desired!!! Jacob would have been better off in the cooch tent!


message 68: by Kylie (new)

Kylie You people are making too big of a deal about this book. It's a great read and it's very interesting and fun. The author probably went through massive research to find the stuff she put in her book. We weren't around back in that time so we shouldn't be judging the story and how the characters should be behaving. People back in those times behaved, thought and reacted to thing differently than we do now. In my opinion, the sex scenes made it more realistic and more interesting because it showed the life and what types of people he met and dealt with in that time and matter.


Tallulah I don't really agree with your other points, but I too found Marlena curiously insipid?? shame because it could've been a great love story but instead I was like ehhh...wait why is he so into her? etc. etc.


message 70: by Meghan (last edited Nov 18, 2014 03:51PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Meghan Cooper I agree with a lot of the points in this thread - weird/unnecessary sex stuff, disconnect between the characterization a of the two Jacobs, several loose ends, non dynamic characters (everyone felt like a charicature or stereotype except maybe Walter to me), and yes I found myself rolling my eyes frequently and noting how she was trying too hard to sound like a virgin male. I didn't hate the book, and loved the period/context (so I did enjoy those details), but these are my major gripes.


Veronica Count me in with baffled Heather above. Objections to not that explicit sex scenes but no apparent objection to violence, murder and animal abuse? I didn't feel this was great literature, but I liked the vividness of her descriptions of life in the circus, warts and all.


Cristina I found it interesting and engaging.


message 73: by Lindy (new) - rated it 1 star

Lindy I agree


Becky I completely agree that the sexual scenes were more for shock value than to add to the story. That part annoyed me, too.


message 75: by Amy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Amy I listened to this book on a road trip. I thought it was probably meant for a teenage audience who have great grandfathers (parents) who like to tell their life stories. That would be the perfect audience, but I also enjoyed it :-).


message 76: by Amy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Amy I listened to this book on a road trip. I thought it was probably meant for a teenage audience who have great grandfathers (parents) who like to tell their life stories. That would be the perfect audience, but I also enjoyed it :-).


Yanis Cabrera I agree!


Littledove I also expected too much. The only thing that made me read on was to see if there would be a twist or a shocking revelation. At one point I even thought that Jacob and August are one bipolar schizophrenic person. Now that would be interesting :)


Thomas Matthews It's good to know others were bothered by the explicit sexual encounters. I stopped reading the book because of it. I thought it might get better, but I see that it didn't improve. Glad I've saved my mind from reading these scenes.


WhatIReallyRead oh, believe me, that is NOT explicit sexual content...


Juonithz I enjoyed this book, but I agree with you about the sexual content; it did make me uncomfortable, and I also felt that Jacob wasn't really in love with Marlena he just didn't want to be alone. But I thought the characters really helped with the story.


message 82: by Tim (new) - rated it 1 star

Tim Meechan Thanks Rachel for saving me the time, I would have wrote something similar. I can only be mad at myself for not being diligent before buying this novel. I'm only halfway and already tired of her inappropriate use of adjectives and metaphors. Her characters are not real, their motivations unsupported, her sexual descriptions rediculous. How did this become so popular?

Well, your review will keep me sane for a while longer, thanks


Sandra Dickenson Perhaps this is a generational thing? I was born at the tail end of circuses coming into town on trains.
I was more shocked by the first incident of cussing then the language of the few sexual encounters. There were 2 that were described in more detail then the others, likely because they involved the main characters. Those 2 were on the border of explicit but don't hold a candle to erotica.
Men, in general, really do spend most of their life thinking about or involved in sexual satisfaction or fantasy. Some act more, some think more. That part of the story was not bizarre to me. I think the author was quite discreet in her use of swearing and sexual encounters. Both were subdued in the setting she described.
Throw together young men and women, age 17-40 and a ratio of 1 female to 20 men, all sleeping and working in tight quarters, free flowing alcohol, no chance of relationship with anyone outside of the circus employees and thats what you will get.

I personally was very entertained by seeing life through a 92 yr old man, why people joined/left the circus, what conditions they lived under, how trains were adapted to serve as home, the lives of the circus animals, their intelligence and the relationships between the animals and the various strata circus people.

The 2 main characters loved their animals so much and that was touching. Showing love, respect and compassion to others was a common theme to me throughout the book.


Tabatha Schaefer I don't understand was so so sexually explicit? The fact that a Circus from the 30s had whores? That's actually true fact,
The fact that she wrote about the 23 year old virgin make thinking of sex? Also fact it's called hormones,
and in fact he didn't even have sex with her because he passed out, I have read way way way more detailed descriptive sexual contact. And I don't believe she's "trying to write like a man" and even if she did is that a bad thing? Are you thinking women never think about sex?


Tabatha Schaefer I can't get over how descriptive this writer is, when reading I really felt like I could see what was happening, I can't wait to read another of her books


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