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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
  • Taryn
  • Suffern, NY, United States
  • 02-10-07

listened twice

This is the first audiobook I have listened to twice. It was truly my favorite book of the year. I selected it for my book club and everyone was unanimous in their praise for the story.Jacob at 90 "or 93" touched us all and made us think about how we treat our old. The story of young Jacob was fast moving and kept my attention. I think this book was greatly enhanced by the excellent perfomances of the 2 readers. I have recommended Water for Elephants to everyone I know. Dont miss this one! It' a gem!

7 of 10 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Ella
  • toronto,, Ontario, Canada
  • 09-30-06

Pleasantly Surprised

Wow! This one's a keeper. I really wasn't sure if I should take a chance on this book as the description of it did not really appeal to me. I was just overwhelmed with the positive feedback from fellow listeners, so I thought I would give it a try....and am I ever glad I did! This was one of my all time favorite listens.
The narration was excellent, the story line was interesting and moving. I could have done with a little less animal abuse, but I can see why it was written in, it was necessary to bring part of the story together.
Recommended Highly! You won't be disappointed!

5 of 7 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Richard
  • Pembroke Pines, FL, United States
  • 09-12-06

A diamond

I am another that doesn't like circuses and did not think I would like this book. I was certainly wrong as this is an inciteful story, well read by both narrators. I had trouble stopping listening and nearly went through the 12 hours non-stop. The perspective of the 23 and 90 or 93 year old man was brilliant. The author nailed this one and I could easily put myself in the old mans place. I would recommend this book to anyone that wants an interesting story, well told.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • Overall


What a book!! From the very first paragraph I was hooked. The author's descriptions of people, places, and especially the animals were incredible--I could see it all clearly in my mind. Both the narrators were great. I was truly sorry when the book ended.

7 of 10 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Carol
  • Provo, UT, USA
  • 03-21-08

Excellent but Explicit

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.

12 of 18 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Matt
  • east bentleigh, VIC, Australia
  • 02-12-10


a great story and beautifully narrated. loved the two voices of jacob and all of the characters through the book. sometimes was hard to listen to the cruelty to rosie and imagining the awful lives of some of the animals especially the polar bear locked in a cage in the heat of a sweltering summer in america.

6 of 9 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story
  • Helen
  • Sydney, Australia
  • 07-18-13

Listen, it's good but not great

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!

4 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Robin
  • Richmond, VA, USA
  • 07-07-08

A pleasure to listen...

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!

4 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Michael
  • Airmont, NY, USA
  • 04-13-08

Very Enjoyable!

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.

4 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Kathryn
  • Tazewell, VA, United States
  • 09-10-07

I Never Dreamed I Would Love This Book...

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!

4 of 6 people found this review helpful

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 07-06-14

Unusual love story

What made the experience of listening to Water for Elephants the most enjoyable?

The description of circus life before it was politically incorrect to have animals at the circus.

Which character – as performed by David LeDoux and John Randolph Jones – was your favourite?

The main character as an old man.

Did you have an emotional reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

I was disturbed at the cruelty to some of the performers and staff as well as the animals.

Any additional comments?

A love story with a difference.

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story
  • 04-07-14


What would have made Water for Elephants better?

It has potential for human interest.

If you’ve listened to books by Sara Gruen before, how does this one compare?

Sorry but no!

How could the performance have been better?

The mix of cameo flash backs notably from the same character at differing age landmarks,and reliving the same scenario was intriguing.But clearer differences in the narrators' voices and /or pausing to let images sink in would have been helpful overall. Somehow they all sounded the same !

If you could play editor, what scene or scenes would you have cut from Water for Elephants?

None specifically as overall the delivery was monotonous ,lacked pace ; they failed to capture and retain interest.This was not helped by the 'old man' sounding like a 'stock' act of stereotypicality ; every word had the utmost gravitas without balance.The American accents were also difficult to sort out ; it became tiring to experience and did not stimulate enthusiasm.

Any additional comments?

I gather the actual written novel has been well received which makes this Audio version a let down. It's the performance which fails !

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  • MRS
  • 03-06-14


What did you like most about Water for Elephants?

The whole story was very evocative and compelling. I particularly felt drawn to this as my 3xgrandfather was a "dompteur", a tamer of wild animals with a menagerie in the late 19th century and very little is known about his day to day life as a performer (apart from what I have discovered form old newspaper cuttings), and this story suggests a lot of truth in the way people lived in a circus environment at those times.

What other book might you compare Water for Elephants to, and why?

This book stands alone. It is the story of an intelligent man forced into a lifestyle he has no concept of, learning with compassion for both man and beast about the harsh realities of life in this shabby world of the travelling circus. Despite the struggles he had to endure, both mentally and physically, he was able to maintain his own inbuilt moral standards and was a well rounded individual whose capacity to do right never wavered .

Any additional comments?

I loved this book and the performance by the narrator was exceptionally brilliant.

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  • Mrs
  • 01-07-14

Did not want it to end!

This a wonderful story, and so well read by both narrators. It is a very moving and interesting insight in to the circus world. Never once did it lack in interest, I wanted it to go on for ever.

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  • Vanda
  • 12-05-13

Worth a listen

Would you consider the audio edition of Water for Elephants to be better than the print version?

I don't know, I've never read the print version but having said that I liked listening to it.

Who was your favorite character and why?

Rosie the elephant was my favourite character. She endured so much and got her own back in the end.

Which character – as performed by David LeDoux and John Randolph Jones – was your favourite?

Walter the midget

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

Yes, when he lost his parents and described how he felt. After losing someone very important it dug up all those feelings of loss and grief.

Any additional comments?

Don't read this book if you're feeling particularly down about anything ... It will make you feel worse.

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  • Laura
  • 08-02-13

Good story and developed characters

I enjoyed this book very much and thought the characters were very believable. The life in a travelling circus is brought to life, as is the side story of the old gentleman.

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  • Kat
  • 05-07-13

awesome book! and so nicely written

What a gorgeous story. I watched the movie first but the movie doesnt do this captivating story any good! its like entering a whole new magical captivating world back in time

  • Overall
  • Chibi
  • 04-16-13

Brilliant brilliant brilliant

Yes, brilliant! The storyline and the characters really draw you in. They say things and think things that are so personally familiar! There's the perfect balance of shock, adventure, sex, violence, suspense, sadness, comedy and romance. I very much liked both of the narrators' voices too. They really draw you into the story and the characters. I enjoyed listening to them both out and about and in bed before sleep. Brilliant.

  • Overall
  • Sarah
  • 04-13-13

Excellent story and well read

I found this a particularly enjoyable book to listen to. I thought that the use of the two voices, one as the older Jacob and one as the young Jacob, was very effective and kept a clear distinction between the time frames that the story was taking place in. At times the voice of 'old' Jacob could become a bit frustrating as it slowed down the pace of the piece but it did not spoil the book.

I thought the use of music in the book was particularly good and is something that I have not come across in other audio books that I have listened to. It provided a real atmosphere to the piece but without interrupting it as it would drift in gently at the end or the beginning of chapters.

On the whole I would highly recommend this as an audible book, particularly for those who have seen the film as it is so much more in depth without losing the character creation that endears the film.

  • Overall
  • Joe
  • 04-07-13

Great read

I've been meaning to read this since 2006 based on great reviews all over the place, and the movie release reminded me to pick it up. Although the movie reviews are mixed, it's not surprising this was adapted by Hollywood as it almost reads like a screenplay. I enjoyed the writing, but it was a little too linear, and while there were some interesting twists along the way it was always pretty predictable where the story was going. I can't help thinking the author missed a great opportunity to make this a truly unique story, rather than a familiar romance plot in unusual surroundings. That said, the unusual surroundings are the book's saving grace; despite having no special interest in the circus, I found the detail and description of depression era life in a travelling circus fascinating.

The characters are less fascinating. Jacob is a little too perfect as the naive and virtuous hero of the piece. The writing for his older self is sensitively pieced together and is a strong point, but his young self is less so. Marlena was the pretty damsel and that was about as far as her character went. August was the bad guy, with a not very successful attempt to give him a complex schizophrenic personality. The supporting characters in the circus were actually developed better, including the Rosie the elephant.

Ultimately though, I really enjoyed the story despite some basic inadequacies. I'm not exactly sure why, but there was something endearing about the story that made me want to see how it would all end. And even though the two endings (historic and contemporary) were much to easy/perfect, feel good endings are not always a bad thing.

This is a 3.5 star really, but Audible doesn't do halves and this is worthy of more than a 3.