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Publisher's Summary

An atmospheric tale of life and love in a Depression-era traveling circus.

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

Critic Reviews

  • Book Sense Book of the Year Award, Adult Fiction, 2007
  • Audie Award Finalist, Fiction, Unabridged, 2007
"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)

What members say

Average Customer Ratings


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  • Overall

Just Plain Good Story

You could listen to this for it's historical perspective, living in a circus, living during the great depression, living in a nursing home. I liked it because it was just a plain old good story. I listened not because I wanted to know what was going to happen, but because it was a pleasure to listen to what was happening as it was happening. I liked the characters, I felt for the characters, I hurt when they did and was happy when they where. This seems to have been advertised as a romance, which has chased away the men readers. I believe this to be a huge mistake, as it has very little romance. The manly men will appreciate the rough and tough guys who survive living on a Show. I also want to mention that the narration in this audible is perfect. At times I was disappointed in the main character's cowardliness, but that is probably more true to life.

14 of 16 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • fred
  • greensboro nc
  • 04-08-08

You must be patient

You must be patient to enjoy this book. It is not the fastest listen. A batch of interesting characters who change throughut the years. The circus is a great backdrop for some wonderful character development.

22 of 26 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story

Poor writing

I did not finish this book, so take that into consideration in reading this review. This book has been recommended to me by several people. I enjoyed the opening and really liked John Randolph Jones's narration. Once we got into the story of his younger self, however, the writing was so cliched and the dialogue so stereotypical that I felt I'd read the book many times before. It seemed like a book that would be titled "I Traveled With the Circus" aimed at 10-year-olds. I came back to it a few times but grew so irritated with the writing that I abandoned the project. I should have listened to Janice!

19 of 24 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Chris
  • Blackheath, Australia
  • 05-17-09

Very Disappointed

Unfortunately, for me, this book disappointed in every way. The plot was a cliched love story that stumbled around to an unrealistic happy Hollywood ending, the characters were either shallow or exagerrated caricatures, the language felt inappropriately contemporary which questioned the historical worth of the book, the animals were embarrassingly anthropomorphized and the narrators were extremely annoying (particularly Jacob's).

I hope for better luck next time.

22 of 28 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Mark
  • Frisco, TX, United States
  • 05-31-11

I don't get it

The pace was too slow and there really was no point to it all. I almost turned it off on five different occasions, but fought through it only to be ultimately disappointed. I never write reviews, but felt compelled to do so on this one: Don't believe the hype -- this book is average at best, a waste of time at worst.

14 of 18 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Jeff
  • Millville , NJ, USA
  • 06-08-06

Good, but a little to sweet

Very well read. I was hoping it wouldn't be a chick book, and I was pleasantly supprised. I think the voice helps give it a little realness. Somewhat akin to The Time Travelor's Wife in scope and theme, this book is an excelent summer read, or listen, whatever the case may be.

32 of 43 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Robert
  • 07-31-10

Channeling Franklin W. Dixon

Imagine, for a moment that the author of the Hardy Boys chose another pen name and wrote a book about a young man who joins the circus and finds true love. Although I did manage to finish the book (I wouldn't make that choice again), I am surprised by the high ratings this title has received. Be warned; I'm hanging the red lantern on this circus train. The protagonist does everything but say 'aw shucks'. He is practically forced into sex by women who unzip him, thus escaping all responsibility. And the writing includes such gems as "solid as an oblisk; viscous as water". Viscous as water? Given the ratings, there must be a good audience for this kind of book.... but I'm not it.

15 of 20 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Julie
  • Le Center, MN, USA
  • 04-23-09

Who doesn't love the circus?

So how could I resist a story with a circus, a love story, and a right good curmudgeon? I couldn't. This is a wonderful book which hasn't recieved nearly enough attention.

9 of 12 people found this review helpful

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  • Performance
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A Classic Unlikely Love Story

What did you love best about Water for Elephants?

Can I say

What was one of the most memorable moments of Water for Elephants?

The moment when Marlena's schizophrenic husband strikes her and Jacob steals her out of the circus camp ... It's the moment that her husband loses her, and I think he knows he won't get her back.

Which scene was your favorite?

I honestly can't pick one .... maybe when the menagerie escaped was my fave. The narration of this was so good that, as I listened, I felt I was in the midst of the stampede, stripes and snorts whirling around me.

If you could take any character from Water for Elephants out to dinner, who would it be and why?

I would invite the young and old Jacobs. They are both idealistic and insightful, in spite of their years and because of them, respectively.

6 of 8 people found this review helpful

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  • Performance
  • Story
  • Bill
  • Kailua Kona, HI, United States
  • 09-08-12

What Are You Waiting For?

If you have not read, or listened, to this wonderful book yet, do it now. A beautiful story of memories lost and found, of young love and a life lived well, of courage and its consequences, and of elephants! (well, at least one).

This is one of those novels you will listen to more than once.

8 of 11 people found this review helpful

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  • Overall
  • Ian
  • 02-25-11


I've listened to around 20 books and this has got to be the best. I'd read the back cover and wasn't keen on reading about someone running away to join a circus, but a friend recommended it and I was hooked. It cleverly switches between the main character at aged 23 and 93. I found the 23 year old story informative and powerful, and the 93 year old poignant and sensitive - I was close to tears after one of the elderly man's disappointments. Fantastic!

10 of 12 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Bart
  • 01-28-12

Gorgeous listen

Beautiful story, and beautifully narrated. Easy listen, but full of creative ideas, thoughtful perspectives, and very touching. I've recommended it to a few friends, who all loved it, so it is a good sign, which gave me confidence to write my first ever review! Fantastic listen for super busy and bored alike, as you'll have something to look forward to!

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • 09-29-11


I was inspired to read this book after seeing the movie. As ever - the book outstripped the movie by miles. I loved the format, swapping back and forth between an old man's sad current existence and a first person account of his past life. Having two different readers absolutely worked. I found it moving and totally gripping. Very well written by a master story teller.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Vicky
  • 08-29-11


I loved this - I laughed and I cried and didn't want it to end. When it did I started it from the beginning and listened all over again. I think it was even better second time around. Recommend with a capital R.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Annie
  • 06-08-11

loved it

Unusual subject matter and although there is no great emotional depth to this story it was absolutely fascinating to learn the background detailed history of the touring American Circus Trains during the depression. I really enjoyed it so much I want to see the film now for illustrative purposes!

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Alastair J Bullock
  • 01-29-08

A beautifully crafted tale.

Quite simply my favorite Audible listen so far. A well crafted story with evocative description of a bygone era providing a rich backdrop for an engaging tale played out by a satisfyingly varied array of characters. This all given added interest through the story being relayed via the reminiscences of the protagonist in the final years of his life but still with some fire in his belly! An unexpected, and therefore all-the-more rewarding insight into, and perspective on how one deals with the process of aging. For me, this beautifully told story ticks all the right boxes and thus is highly recommended.

7 of 9 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Amazon Customer
  • 06-13-11

Leaves you with a warm glow

Definitely the best audio book so far for me. A good oldfashioned brilliantly-crafted novel, read in perfect character by the two narrators. Will make you laugh and cry unless you are very hard-boiled. OK yes young Jacob is maybe a bit too perfect and secondary characters are disposed of rather summarily once their part is over but I defy anyone with an ounce of romance in their soul not to be totally absorbed by this fascinating tale of life, love and death in a 30s American travelling train circus. Equally suitable for a 15 year old or a 90 year old and everyone inbetween as long as they are not shocked by a little swearing and two scenes of a sexual nature.

4 of 5 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Karen
  • 04-07-11

A wonderful book

I cannot think of anything I didn't like about this audio book. Plot, narration, characters, elephant - all wonderful. Both parts, the contemporary one and the main story set in the 30s, are fascinating in their own right. Together they tell a great story that kept me gripped.

6 of 8 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Julia Brown
  • 11-07-11

Not good

I read the reviews, which were full of praise. But this book is lacking in story and the American accents are very hard to understand at times. I didn't enjoy it and gave up half way through.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Performance
  • Story
  • Amazon Customer
  • 11-03-16

Wonderful story, beautifully read

Super engaging split narrative between 90yearoldjacob and young Jacob working at a circus during the depression