Nonagenarian Jacob Jankowski reflects back on his wild and wondrous days with a circus. It's the Depression Era and Jacob, finding himself parentless and penniless, joins the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. There he meets the freaks, grifters, and misfits that populate this world. Jacob introduces us to Marlena, beautiful star of the equestrian act; to August, her charismatic but twisted husband (and the circus' animal trainer); and to Rosie, a seemingly untrainable elephant.
Beautifully written, with a luminous sense of time and place, Water for Elephants tells of love in a world in which love's a luxury few can afford.
©2006 Sara Gruen; (P)2006 HighBridge Company
"Water for Elephants resembles stealth hits like The Giant's House, by Elizabeth McCracken, or The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold, books that combine outrageously whimsical premises with crowd-pleasing romanticism. . . . With a showman's expert timing, [Gruen] saves a terrific revelation for the final pages, transforming a glimpse of Americana into an enchanting escapist fairy tale.” (New York Times Book Review)
"Just like a circus, the magic of the story and the writing convince you to suspend your disbelief." (Booklist)
"Gruen skillfully humanizes the midgets, drunks, rubes, and freaks who populate her book." (Publishers Weekly)
I don't understand why this book is a top seller. Very predictable! I had to stop listening and make myself finish it a few days later because it used a point. I like a book to make me feel good at the end and this did not! who wants to read about animal cruelty!
I've been reading the other reviews, and it's pretty amazing how polarizing this book is. People either love, love, LOVE it, or it's a worthless piece of claptrap. Maybe that's the price of success - people feel they need to have a strong opinion.
Well, here's my level-headed review: The two narrators were stellar. Especially the older man. Among the best that you'll find in the audio-book world, and that's a nice thing.
The story was... above average. A bit odd in tone, to tell you the truth. The parts with "Old Jacob" were great. Touching. Illuminating. I'd never felt that close to a 90 year-old man. The author really dug into his soul and mined some lovely truths.
The rest of the story is about "Young Jacob", how he leaves home, joins up with a circus, meets a lovely (and married) girl, etc. At times it was a blast. At others, the tone felt weird. For example: The story would be moving along very sweetly, and even simply, and then all of a sudden we'd get an extremely graphic description of a dwarf "pleasuring himself". We're talking colors, tightness of grip, and so forth...!
Anyway, I have no moral problem with this. It's literature. Wonderful. But it's just one example of how it seemed like the author couldn't decide on a consistent tone. Is the book a sweet and simple tale of joining the circus or a gritty, hyper-real, sexual drama?
The love story between Jacob and Marlena was okay. Just okay. I mean, she's got an unkind, bi-polarish husband who she doesn't like. She says things like "He's my husband!", and Jacob says things like "But he HIT you!" And so forth. It's a lot more beautifully nuanced than that, but do you see what I mean? It's not exactly unmined territory. And there are no surprising turns with their relationship. It unfolds as you'd expect.
One last thing: For a period piece, the dialogue sounded curiously modern. There were some phrases that made me say "What YEAR is this?"
I hope this review has helped.
Composer, reader, hommus eater
This is beautifully performed, and it's a mammoth work so the two performers did excellently to keep pace.
However: the book itself has some holes in it. Firstly, it gets monotonous. It's sort of two toned the whole way - even in the high action part, the circus story part, it has this sort of one-dimensional 'main character does something naughty- lots of swearing occurs - bad stuff happens' cycle which leaves you waiting for something to happen - and when the climax of action does happen, you're left feeling a bit hollow because it just feels very similar to everything that's happened before.
Also, the women aren't written particularly well, which is kind of odd coming from a female author (sexism, much Helen? Oh dear.) No really, in all honesty I wanted the lady characters to have bit more nous than this sort of flimsy damsel in distress feel that might be typical of an early 20th century pulp novel but really has no place in 21st century dramatic realist literature.
There are some beautifully profound moments by the old guy though, which I found really touching, and thought provoking too.
But seriously Gruen, step up your women characters!
Rating scale: 5=Loved it, 4=Liked it, 3=Ok, 2=Disappointed, 1=Hated it. I look for well developed characters, compelling stories.
Several reviewers have mentioned a comparison of this story to Sophie's Choice, and the connection is obvious in the triangular relationship of the 3 main characters. But don't assume that this comparison implies the same quality of story and character development as the previous (far superior) work. Sara Gruen has not created characters that live and breathe. In fact, Marlena barely even speaks - her story (such as it is) is summarized for her by Jacob. She wimpers, she blushes, she covers her mouth with her hand, and she crosses her legs and bounces her foot up and down. I found it odd that a female author could not find a way to give life or even voice to any of the female characters, while working so hard to describe every carnal detail of the men. Who was she trying to impress? The elephant didn't make an appearance until the second half of the story, and had a surprisingly small roll. While the "Old Jacob" portion of the story was somewhat touching, I found that it slowed down what little momentum the circus story had. I did find the behind the scenes of a circus interesting, but from an outsider's point of view. The lack of life of the characters never really let me in. Knowing that the movie is coming out soon and that Reese Witherspoon is playing the lead, I wonder what she has to draw from to create a memorable performance - she certainly hasn't got much to go on from the book.
I loved having two readers - one for the old Jacob and one for the young one. I don't want to say why I liked this book so much because that would give away the ending. Just give it a listen - you won't regret it. It was a pleasure to listen to from beginning to end. I am still smiling - I love the old Jacob!
A topic I never thought that I would enjoy so much. A world that is so far away it's almost alien. My wife read this and raved about it for weeks. So, I (hesitantly) downloaded it. Wow, what a great decision. Highly recommend.
I've been an avid, constant reader since I learned to read at age 5. I ALWAYS have a book going while quilting, cross-stitching, or painting
But not only did I love it, I have told everyone I know that they simply MUST read it. The narration is excellent, which is always wonderful when that happens. But the story itself is gripping. The writing is so descriptive that you can smell the roasting peanuts, taste the grit in the dusty air, and feel the ropes slide in your hand.
While yes, it is a circus story, it is so much more. It is a life lived-- reflected upon from the beginning by Jacob who is now 90 (or is it 93? He can't remember) years old and in a dreaded nursing home. It is a story about nursing home care, circus life, the Depression, mental illness, alcoholism, love, and trains.
Because I am a strict animal lover who cannot tolerate abuse in books, I want to warn others. There is some very limited abuse in the book, but trust me-- it doesn't last long, and it is WELL worth it when you get to the ending. EXCELLENT ending!! Brava to the author!
I looked into this title many times before finally giving in and purchasing it. With my commute, it served as a nice mix between thought-provoking and occasionally mindless. The narrators are both good, but the older Jacob is FANTASTIC. I found myself looking forward to the next chapter just so I could get back to his devastatingly realistic portrayal of an old man stuck between comforting reminiscence and disparaging experiences in the now.
The story itself was entertaining and sometimes had some depth to it that left me pondering, but it was not a book that I would recommend to someone looking for any kind of a head-scratcher. The look into old-timey circus life was apparently informed by Gruen's research, which lent it much credibility as I was listening, but the characters themselves were mostly average in their ability to maintain my interest. I was drawn into the characters of August, Marlena, and Walter, but not nearly as much into characters such as Uncle Al, Camel, and even the young Jacob, who served as the protagoinist but not with a great deal of depth. The older Jacob, however, had a great deal of depth and nuance, which is why I mentioned before my tendency to look forward to his chapters.
I recommend this book, but know a couple things. It's more of a romance story than "literature", and the ending is one that you will likely either love or hate. For me, a bad ending ruins a book. This ending, well, I appreciated it on some levels and hated it on others. That's all I'm willing to say.
Though this was a good 'read', ultimately it was a disappointingly cheap shot. Characters rather stock, plot not that fascinating. The plot relies on a twist at the end to hold interest. I love the circus and I loved how the book started; ultimately the characters--at least the human ones--were predictable and not that interesting
Like most folks I bought this audio book with high expectations. I tried and tried but could not finish listening. It kept feeling like an utter waste of my time. The readers both do a good job but Gruen's writing is too predictable, cliched, and often simply doesn't ring true. Maybe this is what bestseller fiction is about but I certainly would not credit this book with any literary merit.
"Water for Elephants"
Both strangely exotic and nostalgically familiar, this tale of tenderness found in the harsh reality of circus life and enduring love stolen from cruelty is captivating and entrancing. Told through the eyes and voices of an old timer and his younger self, it flips from past to present and back again with ease and manages to bring two stories together with equal strength and interest. A beautiful story that is beautifully read by the narrators.
I listened to this for a second time when I had exhausted my new supply while away.
And it was just as enthralling as the first listen.
Brilliantly written and wonderfully read by the two readers.
I can't recommend it highly enough - one of the best audibles I've listened to.
"A true love story"
A true love story written to thrive in the 21st Centry, from the charactors to the plot line its well written and addictive.........
"The film does not even get close."
I could not put this book down.
I remember exactly where I was when things happened in this book.
The character of the old man is explored to the fullest extend, this character made the story, and was completely overlooked in the film version.
Perfect for a holiday, or summer commutes, as I did.
Unusual subject and not one I would normally choose. It made me laugh and cry. Brilliant. Do read it
I wasn't sure if I was going to like this audiobook when I started listening to it as I found the hopping between the current and past a little hard going and the older person's voice difficult to understand at times. But, I'm glad I perservered with it. The story is very original and draws you in. Worth a listen
"Wonderfully engaging Big Top Book"
This book tells the story of a young man thrown into the life of a circus worker after his parents are killed. The wonderful transition between times takes the listening into two very different but equally compelling settings. Brilliant !!
"Great Original Story"
Great to read an original book for a change. I knew nothing about the american circus trains, and now I do! Takes place during the American Depression. The love story is a bit lame but otherwise a terrific listen.
"I Loved it!"
A really enjoyable listen, on a par with 'The Help'. This has been one of those books I couldn't wait to get back to; it was really well structured and well read, I was thoroughly entertained the whole way through. I highly recommend this audiobook.
"Enjoyed every single second …."
It left me wanting more…. I did not want the story to end. I laughed and cried. This is a tale simply told, an account that was both funny & sad, on times illustrating the cruelty inherent in some human beings and the goodness of others. The narration was outstanding, it brought the wonderful characters to life and I could really see them through ‘Jacobs’ eyes. It also made me think about the value we place on our elderly population. Can’t wait to watch the film, hope it lives up to the book.
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