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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

Overall

  • 4.4 out of 5.0
  • 5 Stars
    11,247
  • 4 Stars
    5,276
  • 3 Stars
    1,769
  • 2 Stars
    480
  • 1 Stars
    337

Performance

  • 4.6 out of 5.0
  • 5 Stars
    7,667
  • 4 Stars
    2,449
  • 3 Stars
    641
  • 2 Stars
    148
  • 1 Stars
    123

Story

  • 4.4 out of 5.0
  • 5 Stars
    6,759
  • 4 Stars
    2,798
  • 3 Stars
    1,077
  • 2 Stars
    293
  • 1 Stars
    180
Sort by:
  • Overall

An Enjoyable Book

I enjoyed listening to this book. There were some twists and turns, but for the most part it was just a well told story.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Sara
  • walkersville, md, United States
  • 08-23-08

A story about love, life, elephants, and history.

This was a great book about humanity's affect on humanity, animals, and history. I highly recommend this little book to anyone who ever wanted to join the circus.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Moving

I really enjoyed this book, not so much for the main story about Jacob's life in the circus, but for the very moving account of his life as an old man in a nursing home. Perhaps that's because the narrator who plays 90- or 93-year-old Jacob is absolutely marvellous. I was moved to tears at several points by his excellent acting/reading. Well worth picking up!

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Excellent!

This was the best narrated audio book I've heard. It was narrated by two people who played different ages of the main character's life. Well done!

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Best Story On Earth

From the characters to the vivid descriptions to the wide range of emotions, this book had me mesmerized. The descriptions are powerful and moving. You see each of the different character perspectives of the so clearly, some of your own perceptions may change. You may even learn a few things along the way as I did. It's no wonder this audiobook was chosen as the Best of 2006.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Margaret
  • Libertyville, IL, USA
  • 04-05-08

Loved this story

The story was beautiful written and extremely engaging, it was a great listen and really enjoyed the voices of the two readers.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Janice
  • Sugar Land, TX, United States
  • 04-14-11

How is this going to be a movie?

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.

9 of 15 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story
  • Judy
  • Evansville, IN, United States
  • 10-26-11

Hate it

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!

6 of 10 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • David
  • Los Angeles, CA, United States
  • 02-12-11

A (hopefully!) helpful review

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.

6 of 10 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story

I can never get this book out of my head

I listened to this book several years ago, and I can never get it out of my head. It's a testament to " you only live once", so take chances and enjoy life as it comes. The novel begins in a nursing home (where we all will wind up some day) and goes back in time to life in a traveling circus in the 1930s. Join a circus, how great is that. Superbly written and narrated. On my top ten list of best audible books.

3 of 5 people found this review helpful

Sort by:
  • Overall
  • Ann
  • 06-05-11

Water for Elephants

A real 5 star book All emotions-- sad, happy, suspense, drama, love, hate,. danger-- I could go on !! and a twist in the very last pages The naration of the young and old Jacob excellent

1 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Jess
  • 05-13-11

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.

  • Overall
  • Natalie
  • 04-21-11

wonderful

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.

1 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Jonathan
  • 03-25-11

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!

1 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • M. Bashford
  • 07-11-10

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.

1 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • The Book Squirrel
  • 02-07-09

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.

Highly recommended!

1 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Ms. Laura Mercier
  • 11-05-08

Fantastic

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.

1 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • John
  • 06-16-11

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!

0 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Meena
  • 06-13-11

Excellent

This was an excellent listen. Very enjoyable, not bored at all. Would recommend to just about everyone.

0 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Georgina
  • 06-10-11

Great listen

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.

0 of 1 people found this review helpful