Saturday, January 15, 2011

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

I was evil this month for my FLICKS Book and Movie club and chose two books for my fellow members to read. In my defense, I don’t get to chose again until next fall and One for the Money and Water for Elephants were both books I wanted to chose and both the movie versions of them come out before my next turn. Since we like to go to movies together, I thought I’d pick these both to see if they would be movies that my club would like to see together.

Jacob Jankowski is a ninety-three year old retired veterinarian that lives in assisted living. A circus comes to town and sets up across the street from the assisted living. The excitement of the circus among the residents brings back memories to Jacob of the time that he worked for the circus in his youth.

Jacob’s parents were killed in a car accident a week before he was due to graduate from Cornell with his veterinary degree. The plan had been for Jacob to return home after graduation and join his father’s practice. After his parents’ death, Jacob learns they had mortgaged their home to the hilt in order to send him to school. It is the 1930’s and times were tough. Jacob is in turmoil and is not sure what to do with his life. On a whim, he jumps on a train only to discover it is a circus train.

The circus manager, Big Al, is happy to discover he is a Cornell trained vet and Jacob is on the show. Jacob learns the ropes of the circus and discovers that the people and animals are not treated well. He also meets the beautiful Marlena and her moody husband, August. Big Al buys an elephant for the circus named Rosie that is unable to perform. This puts the circus in financial difficulties. Will Rosie save the circus? Will Jacob and Marlena find a way to be together?

It has been a few years since I first read Water for Elephants. I remembered the basic story, but I really enjoyed reading it again for the second time and seeing all of the details I missed. Being a few years older, I also had a different prospective on the “old man” parts of the book. The first time around I was bored by them, but this time around, they were some of my favorite parts. I think having my Great-Grandma in assisted living and then passing away made me think more about what it would be like to be an old person at the end of your life living in assisted living.

My favorite quote in the book is, “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.”

This happened to me. I made fun of my husband for not remembering how old he is (he’s two years older than me), but then once I hit thirty, the same thing started to happen to me. I have to think about how old I am when people ask me. I often think I’m my husband’s age and then am relieved to realize I’m two years younger!

I also enjoy the great historic detail on the workings of a traveling train circus in the 1930’s. I found them to be fascinating and something new that I had never read about before. I especially liked the historic pictures at the beginning of each chapter. My book club also enjoyed this aspect of the novel. I think we need to take a road trip to The Circus World Museum in Baraboo, WI. I’ve never been there before (I grew up in Michigan).

One book club member did not like this book due to the animal cruelty. There are scenes of animal cruelty that were very disturbing. Luckily Jacob didn’t see them first hand, although he heard them and saw the after effects. Author Sara Gruen gives the historic basis of some of this cruelty in her author’s note in the back. Sadly the real story was worse than the fictional story.

I myself was disturbed by the cruelty to the circus workers. The practice of “redlighting” workers by throwing them off the train when the circus was in hard financial straits is more than a little disturbing. I actually had to do a quick research online to see if it was true that such things happened after I finished the book and unfortunately, it looks like it did.
I am looking forward to the movie. What do you think of the casting of Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon in these roles?

Overall, I enjoyed this book all over again for the second time. It is a great story love story, a great historical fiction story of circuses in the 1930’s, a great story of life in your 90’s, and a great mystery (whodunit from the prologue). Water for Elephants was first recommended to me by a member of my book club in Milwaukee and was now passed on by me to my current book club. It is my first book for the Historical Fiction Challenge 2011.

Book Source: My brother-in-law and sister-in-law gave it to me for Christmas a few years ago.


  1. This is my favorite historical fiction book. I have read it and listened to it on audio (which was fantastic by the way). I think the author picked up on so many subtle nuances in the characters. I personally cannot wait for the movie. At first I didn't think that I liked the casting of Robert Patinson and Reese Witherspoon (although I think she is an amazing actress), I just didn't think they worked. But as I have been following the making of the movie (check out this site if you are interested has really changed my mind about them and I think they will be great. Wonderful review!

  2. If it is really sad about the cruelty to animals I think I will give this one a miss.

  3. After reading your review, I think I should read this book, which I've heard about from many. Great quote, and excellent review, Laura!

  4. I liked this book when I read it a while ago. I am still not sure about the casting of Robert Pattinson but I will definitely be trying to see the movie.

  5. I can't wait for both of these movies but I'm not too sure about the casting of either. I feel like Witherspoon, much as I love her, is a bit too old. Pattinson I'm not sure about--I haven't seen him act and I'm not sure the Twilight movies are the way to determine if the guy can act.

  6. I really enjoyed this book when I read it, even in the raw moments! And, I am really looking forward to the movie . . . BUT, I'm not sure if I like the casting. Not a huge fan of Pattinson, love Witherspoon, very mixed feelings overall with the combination.

  7. Water For Elephants is a passionate story of life and love. Because I dislike spoilers I don't want to give anything way, but I think it's safe - and spoiler-free - to say that Water for Elephants has maybe one of the best endings to a book I've ever read. I don't know if you've ever watched a movie and been so involved in the story and so content at the end that you wanted to applaud even though no one was there to appreciate your applause, but Sara Gruen made me want to applaud. Very highly recommended.