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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


I have listened to a lot of audio books and this is by far onw of the best. Great story, great narration. I felt so bad for the old man - the narration is wonderful.

  • Overall


I have never liked circus. I have been there twice and I do not think I ever go again. I loved the book for its honesty and the way it seeps through your heart, making you, with all of its reality, more HUMAN than you were before reading it. I was crying, I was laughing and I felt deeply ALIVE when listening to the thrilling narration of the Audible edition.

In my heart I am sending Angels to stand by all people who work in circus all over the world and to all the animals, who happened to be in circus in this lifetime. Is circus a curse or a blessing? I am not the one to judge; do remember that I do not like circus for all the cruelly hard and seemingly unappreciated work people and animals are committed to in order to entertain the crowd...

  • Overall
  • selena
  • Pamplin, VA, United States
  • 02-03-11

Fantastic story and amazing narrator

I was son enraptured with this story i constantly found myself daydreaming about the circus and looking forward to getting in may car every chance I could to listen. And I was sad when it was over, I wanted it to go on forever. The story was unique and intense and the narrator for young Jacob was amazing and made it riveting. He did the characters such justice that the actors for the upcoming film have big shoes to fill (especially Robert Pattinson, I don't have much faith that he can pull it off).

  • Overall

beautiful narration,captivating storytelling

i really enjoyed listening to this book. the story was good, captivating even if it was simple. it was the kind of story you thought about in between sessions, it would stick in the mind and good moments stuck with you. the narration was really some of the best i've ever experienced. i was distracted by the intro music at parts though, and it was really hard to focus on the story in those times. otherwise superbly done.

  • Overall

A pleasant read

This book is well done. I like the author's transition between the elder and the younger, and the narration is excellent in making it easy to discern between the characters.

My only complaint is that I'd have liked to continue the stories of both the younger and the older protagonist. When the story ends for the younger, I wanted very much to have some type of resolution to hear the rest of his story. That was somewhat resolved through the story, but the ending with the elder character left me wanting a bit more -- I did feel that ultimate end was somewhat unrealistic as well, although I won't go into the details of that so as to avoid spoiling the story for anyone. I have to admit, I didn't see it coming until the very end. On the other hand, the fact that I wanted more is probably an indication that the characters were well developed since I didn't want to let them go.

The prose is good and the story is well written. The characters are engaging and you find that you really like the ones you should and that you at least empathize with the bad guys, although sometimes I admit thinking that they got what they deserved.

This book is has themes and a story line mature enough for adults to enjoy, and yet there's not much in there that would shock your grandmother. While there is the occasional coarse word that may be unacceptable if you're listening in the car with pre-teens, it's not so much that I would have reservations about listening to it with my kids OR my grandmother in the car. I recommend it.

1 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Daniel
  • Bryan, TX, United States
  • 01-29-11

5 Star Story

Amazingly engaging storyline and the voice actors are spot on with the different ages of the narrator.

  • Overall


I bought this book in hard copy, but have not had time to sit down and read it. When I saw it in the "Great First Listens" category, I decided to go ahead and get it. I am SO glad I did! I was hooked within the first 2 minutes. The story is fantastic and the narration is superb!

There were no slow moments in this book. Each chapter left me eager for the next one. Sara Gruen is a truly gifted writer. I could "see" the scenes and feel the emotions as I listened to the story. Having the 2 perspectives, read by two different narrators, was absolutely brilliant and it turned a great story into a FABULOUS TALE! I really enjoyed the different voices David LeDoux used for each of the circus characters: He gave each one a unique personality without being corny or overly dramatic. His rendition of Uncle Al was my favorite!! John Randolph Jones was AWESOME as the 90 (or 93!) year old Jacob! The way he paced his breathing and tone was pitch perfect. I'm going to make time to read my hard copy of this book: It really is a GREAT FIRST LISTEN and I know it will be excellent to read!

  • Overall
  • Heather
  • Berkeley, CA, United States
  • 01-25-11

Surprisingly Bland

I found this surprisingly dull. Or at least, lacking any surprise... this is the story of a guy who joins the circus during the depression. Now imagine all the quirkiness that ensues. That's the book. The story is cobbled together from all the folklore about circuses - life on the train, dealing with animals and shady characters. Throw in some unrequited love, and you have yourself a cheap novel. This is pure plot, and not a particularly interesting plot at that. The characters are wholly unremarkable and flat - there's no real clear motivation or mystery. The people don't change, they continue to be surprised and excited by the same things. By the end of the book (no spoiler, don't worry...) you really have no idea who the narrator is, except that he had an adventure early in his life.

I didn't find anything offensive. The scene that seems to offend anyone is right in the first chapter or two and seems there merely to tell you "the circus is crazy! you never know what's going to happen next!" but really you do know, and really this is the raciest thing that happens in the whole book. You know that there will be an elephant, and that they'll travel by train, and that someone will get hurt and that there will be a speakeasy that is raided, and that moonshine is bad for you, that there will be some hazing for new members of the circus, and that there are always tensions between the performers and the working men, and that lions are scary and monkeys make great companions while doing the rounds.

About the only interesting character is August. And even his background ends up being a total cop-out on the author's part. Yawn.

  • Overall

Slow but interesting

This was my first audio book. I rather liked the narrator for the old man, and was less fond of the younger man's narrator. However, I thought the book was an interesting topic - the Circus. I was glued to the book, listening wherever I had time but seriously the ending pissed me off. I won't give it away but I felt majorly let down when I finally reached it.

  • Overall

A beautiful story

A lovely plot - wonderful character development, a masterful weaving of history and present seen through the main character's eyes at the start of his life and his later life. I wanted more!