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)
Overall, I enjoyed this audio book very much. The writing style was rich, the story line interesting. The narrators were excellent and turned the book into a drama. It was like listening to an old time radio show. My objection is this: for those of us concerned with explicit sex in our reading material, there should be some kind of a warning. Although this book only had two raunchy scenes, this was enough to cause me to only give the book 4 stars instead of 5.
I focus on fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, science, history, politics and read a lot. I try to review everything I read.
This is a fine book, with a pleasant story and some nice characters. I particularly liked the ending and the narration was superior without being perfect. The settings for the story were mildly interesting and It was a very easy listen. Given the many great reviews I hoped for a wonderful and magical listen. This it was not. It was a nice modern novel, but for me that was it. The characters sometimes verged on almost becoming really interesting but then the scene ended, they never got me to laugh or cry, or even care very much.
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!
"Worth every penny!"
Like all the previous reviews there is nothing I did not like about this title. The narration was fabulous and I loved the story, even doing my daughters washing up turn so that I could listen to it! I found myself totally lost in the story and characters and I agree that if you love 'The Help' you will love this too.Highly recommended.
I found this story absolutely enthralling. I would recommend it to anyone who loves a good listen.
The older character was particularly astute and his comments on growing old, loss of dignity and focus on life are particularly moving.
"Brilliant story - v. well read - like being there!"
I bought this off the back of initial reviewer's description and was not once disappointed. An amazing story and very clever/slick switching between main character when he was a young man in the circus and when he was an old man in a retirement home, and back and forth throughout. A very clever prologue (which you only realise fully later) - it grips you from the start. I found myself wanting to keep getting back to the book to see what happened next, so never a dull moment. The reading of this book was excellent, almost like you were there with the characters, and every emotion was instantly shared. I highly recommend this book, even if the initial subject puts you off - I wasn't sure before I started but I am now very glad I took the plunge. 5 stars well deserved!
"A Journey with the circus"
An Amazing journey across America by train with the circus. I felt I was there sharing the excitement, adventures, but tough life they led. The main character is now in his nineties and it tells also of his life in a nursing home and how he is coping with old age. Wonderful journey narrated so well.
"Best book read in 2008"
This turned out to be one of my favourite books for 2008. This story flowed so well and you get a real view of what life was like not only in a circus but what it was like to have a job in the depression.
The story was brilliantly written with the narator not only living in the present but his memories of his earlier life. As a Care Assistant myself I related to how he felt in his nursing home and having his independance taken away from him bit by bit.
This is a really wonderful story - beautifully written and read. I know I'll come back to this one again and again, it's a real gem.
"A great story told by a great story teller"
It's not a great work of literature but it is a damn good story. This is one of the few books I've listened to where the narrator has really made the book come to life. Cliched or classic, you decide. The ending is not what you think, but in hindsight you wonder how could it be any different. Enjoy!
This was an excellent listen. Very enjoyable, not bored at all. Would recommend to just about everyone.
I really did not want this book to end. I savoured every moment. It oozed images, smells and noise as it journeyed with the circus and the compelling characters. It's going to be difficult to find another book to rival it.
This is a book you must listen to. Absolutely stunning piece of work. Never in a book have I felt so much as though I was there, the smells, the noises. Perfection.
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