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Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen Book Review

Updated on March 23, 2012

Sara Gruen's New York Times Bestselling Water for Elephants is a gritty and spellbinding story that weaves Jacob Jankowski's adventurous youth as a circus vet with his confined existence as an old man in a nursing home. The result is a book you won't want to put down. If you are a literary type, you will pull a lot of additional layers of meaning from this story. If you are simply looking for a great summer read, this book can do that for you, too.

Gruen presents with searing reality an exotic world full of intense, bright colors, sickly sweet smells, and cacaphonous noises. The graphic descriptions in this novel will undoubtedly offend some readers. After an afternoon lost reading this page-turning novel, I emerged from this book as if suddenly aroused from an intense dream, or perhaps a nightmare.

Aging isn't Graceful

Jacob Jankowski, the main character of Gruen's novel, is 90 or 93, and hates the nursing home his children have placed him in. He is a prisoner in a non-functioning body and detests being treated like a child in a kindergarten.

What do you see when you enter the cafeteria of a nursing home? Gruen explores this theme subtly; it is a launch point for an otherwise fantastic and fast-paced story about a much younger version of this man. But why include this angle at all?

The contrast between the story of Jacob's early life and his life as a nursing home inmate is startling. At what point does the vibrant, full-life we live in our salad days become non-existent in the eyes of the world? Is the idea of a glorious youth just a fiction, especially in this novel of gruesome details and shocking imagery?

In our first youth, it is plausible to run away to the circus, but what about in our second childhood? Read this book and decide for yourself.

Depressing Youth

Youth isn't all that it's cracked up to be. Sometimes it's more, and sometimes more is too much.

America during The Great Depression is not the place to lose your parents and all your money. Faced with these realities, Jacob Jankowski runs away to join a cut-rate circus. And it's not glamorous. In fact, the experience is gruelling, depressing, and outrageous. People are treated like animals, animals are treated less than beasts, and average Americans are hoodwinked and bamboozled at every turn. But wow, what a story he tells!

Gruen uses Jankowski's personal rivalries, lust (or love, if you can call it that), and some strong villanous characters to tell multiple stories at once. Jacob Jankowski's personal life story merges with that of the circus train. He works his way up from the gruelling early-morning work crew into the inner-circle of the performers, who experience a priveleged existence compared to everyone else. Life in a cut-rate circus is shady, suspect, and not exactly family-fare, but it does make for a page-turning novel.

Add in one jealous, wife-beating husband, his beautiful, but off-limits wife who is poor and mistreated, and a lug-headed Jankowski, who can't seem to find a girlfriend who isn't already married, and you have a very interesting story, indeed.

How much water does an Elephant drink? A lot more than you will find on a circus train. This fascinating book vividly depicts life in a circus, from sunup to sundown.

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  • wannabwestern profile image

    Carolyn Augustine 5 years ago from The Land of Tractors

    Thanks Jean, it has been about 2 years since I published this review, but I do appreciate the compliment. I remember this book was quite intense, but I enjoyed the characterization and author Sara Gruen's mastery of descriptive writing. It was a pleasure to read. Regards and happy reading.

  • Jean Bakula profile image

    Jean Bakula 5 years ago from New Jersey


    Nice review, even though I reviewed this book too! I think it was such an interesting story, and that it isn't getting the attention it deserved! Best Wishes.

  • wannabwestern profile image

    Carolyn Augustine 6 years ago from The Land of Tractors

    Thank you so much Sherri!

  • SherriWell profile image

    SherriWell 6 years ago from North Carolina

    I read this one and absolutely LOVED it! Thanks for the great review!

  • wannabwestern profile image

    Carolyn Augustine 7 years ago from The Land of Tractors

    Thank you! I look forward to reading it! This was a very entertaining book!

  • shellyakins profile image

    shellyakins 7 years ago from Illinois

    I loved this book! Great review. I'm liking this to my hub about writing effective book reviews as a good example.

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    Water for Elephants Movie 7 years ago

    We will have a Water for Elephants Movie in 2011 with Robert Pattinson, I read that at

  • Lupo profile image

    Lupo 9 years ago from Boston Area

    This sounds like a good book. Thanks for the review....I think I will read it!

  • marisuewrites profile image

    marisuewrites 9 years ago from USA

    I wanted to know about this book, I've been so tempted to buy it but delayed some as I thought it might depress me and right now I don't need that! I've put it on my buy later list. thanks for a great review!!

  • wannabwestern profile image

    Carolyn Augustine 9 years ago from The Land of Tractors

    Thanks, you gals! I really enjoyed this book, but found the imagery a little more intense than I would normally be drawn to. The book had a fantastic, surreal feel. We're in the middle of moving, but I'll be hubbing big time soon.

  • In The Doghouse profile image

    In The Doghouse 9 years ago from California


    Yes, another great book review. Thank you for your thoughts.

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    pgrundy 9 years ago

    This sounds like a great read. I really look forward to your book reviews. Keep 'em coming, and thank you!