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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


One of my favorite books. I was born to circus parents, and this reminded me of the stories my father used to tell me. I just loved it.

  • Overall

disappointing and disgusting

I was really looking forward to reading about how smart elephants are in a story about them or that included them more than this one does. I read to chapter 9 or 10 and finally an elephant was introduced. I am disgusted that there is a titillating and graphic sexual encounter every time the younger reader reads. I read a lot of reviews about this for a long time before I finally bought this book and am very disappointed that I never found this mentioned in the reviews at that point. Am not impressed in this author nor will i read her works again.

  • Overall
  • Heather
  • Phoenix, AZ, United States
  • 09-18-10

I CHERISHED this charming book!

It was enchanting, funny, touching and very intriguing...loved this story! You won't be dissappointed.

  • Overall
  • book nerd
  • New York, NY United States
  • 09-12-10

good plot, not so great character development

This book was interesting to get through because of the vivid descriptions of the circus during the depression, and the basic plot line between Jacob, Marlena and August was fascinating. However, as I was reading and the further along I got, the more Jacob (the younger) really annoyed me as a character. I think he was an idiot. Older Jacob was really well narrated.... really felt for him, more than younger Jacob.

  • Overall
  • Janet
  • Plano, TX, United States
  • 08-31-10


This is a story I enjoyed very much and was sorry to have it end. It is well written and well narrated. It is a must listen to, it captures the attention and keeps you wanting for more. I highly recommend this book.

  • Overall


Loved this book. Written and narrated so well that you can smell the characters. A great job!

  • Overall
  • Heather
  • Crystal City, Manitoba, Canada
  • 08-21-10

Water for Elephants

This book is now on my list of favourites in my lifetime. It caught me right from the start and intrigued me until the end of the book. The review of Jacob’s memories of his past life in the depression mixed with his review of life now in a retirement home was both enlightening and humorous. I work in a long term care facility and found hearing the story from Jacob’s perspective was humbling and sent me through a whole raft of emotions. This story is well written, and the narrators did a fantastic job of bringing the story to life.

  • Overall

Wondrously satisfying

This is one of the best books I have read since "Soldier in the Great War." I realize now that it has a similar structure for a very compact span of time but I enjoyed it immensely. Very evocative writing. I thought the older voice actor would get on my nerves but the final chapter really gave the character such bravery as a free moving man.

  • Overall
  • Ann
  • Orefield, PA, United States
  • 08-19-10

A good "read"

Generally a very good book. It certainly kept my attention as I always like fiction based on stories that are based on history. The history here is the real life in a circus. Although well read for both narrators, the older version of the protagonist was a little harder to listen to and that part of the story dragged a bit. Without blowing the ending, I will say I let the book start over again to listen to the first chapter because I had assumed things that I needed to clarify. I always like that kind of twist. Definitely worth reading.

1 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall


I loved this book. It offered an insightful view into the world of an elderly man, struggling with issues of mortality, memory, love, guilt, joy, loss and regret. Gruen masterfully portrays the plight of many very old people and the ways that they report living more vividly in the past than in the present. Both narrators were very skilled and brought the characters to life in a way I've seldom experienced in audio format. A memorable story and worthwhile download!