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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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  • Performance
  • Story
  • Simon
  • svendborg, Denmark
  • 04-26-11

Fantastic narrated

A really nice story that somehow reminds me of Life of Pi - maybe it is the ending that does it. But a highly recommended book with some of the best narrating I have heard of the maybe 50 books I have listened to.

  • Overall
  • Donna
  • Fremont, CA, United States
  • 04-26-11

Water for Elephants is magical

The story line of Water for Elephants is about a time and business in history I would have never known about if not for Sara Gruen's novel. The old Jacob's narrator (I believe was voice of) John Randolph Jones is why I listen to Audio books. His voice was smooth and filled with warmth and character. David LeDoux introduced us to an array of characters through his voice talents. As it always is in the world of books, I loved the book but I can't wait to see the movie!

  • Overall
  • Mackenzie
  • huntington, WV, United States
  • 04-24-11

Water for the soul

A beautiful work. I wish I could rate this book 6 stars or 10 or a million stars. I loved the narration of old Jacob just as much, or perhaps a little more than that of young Jacob. It's a wonderful story with many themes. Both Narrators did a fantastic job. I laughed and cried and every feeling in between, brilliantly written.

  • Overall
  • Elizabeth
  • Nebraska City, NE, United States
  • 04-23-11

Something for Every Generation

This book was recommended to me by a 64 year old woman, I'm 47, I recommended it to my 25 year old daughter. We all agree, this is an intriguing novel that will stir your emotions and senses. I could almost smell the circus and feel the rock of the circus train as the author pulled me deeper and deeper into the lives of the characters.

I commute 2 hours a day and have used audiobooks to pass the time for three years now. I'm sure I will pull this book from my library again and again to relive the adventure.

  • Overall

Great book, spectacular interpretation!

"Age is a terrible thief. Just when you're getting the hang of life, it knocks your legs out from under you and stoops your back. It makes you ache and muddies your head and silently spreads cancer throughout your spouse." Jacob Jankowski (at 90 or 93)

Thought provokingly raw observations like this, artfully crafted and woven together by author Sara Gruen, and compellingly interpreted by co-narrators John Randolph Jones and David LeDoux are the reason this book continues to receive 5-star reviews nearly six years since its debut in audiobook format. To be honest, I’m sometimes wary of books that become the subject of the kind of cultish adoration that this one seemed to have garnered. But, finding myself in the mood for something completely different, I decided to roll the dice on “Water for Elephants”.

I am very glad I went with my gut on this one. As a man of slightly-more-than middle age, the elder Jacob’s vivid and poignant internal monologue really got me thinking about the consequences of advancing years that await us all in one form or another. I vowed to be more appreciative of the here and now. The backbone of the storytelling contained in “Elephants” however is directly attributable LeDoux’s masterful characterizations. Taken with his narration of Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom”, I confess that his credit on this title tipped the scales for me.

I made a point of reading many of the 1 and 2 star reviews on Audible's website. I have to say that it seems as though most of them had not given the book a fair chance before rushing to judgement. That said -- to each their own. As for me, I highly recommend this Audible selection.

  • Overall

Fantastic narration + wonderful story

It is true that I am only on chapter 5 but I have to express my complete delight in this book. The writing is fascinating. Such an unusual story. The narration is fantastic! The narration on an audiobook can make or break it. This one is a wow!

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  • Performance
  • Story
  • Gohar
  • Issaquah, WA
  • 04-19-11

Excellent story in an uncommon part of Depression

The book is around the financial disaster that was the Great Depression. The helplessness of being stuck in a job because there is nowhere else anyone can go. Its a short book but its characters are well developed and entertaining. I would have loved to learn more about Jacob's story after the Benzini Bros but the writer decided to put it in 1 quick paragraph which was fine. I was a little skeptical about the book because of its underlying circus theme; but its more about survival and kindness towards animals. Not so much of a romantic novel. Other reviewers have complained about lewd language and sexual content. It has hardly couple of encounters which were put from a perspective of a virgin teenager; i.e. young Jacob.

The narrators did an excellent job. The 90 yr old was a little hard to understand at times but the narrator captured the essence of the old age and dependency. The young Jacob narrator did a great job with all the voices for the circus.

Overall, an entertaining book with a not so expected end. I would recommend this book and its worth the credit.

  • Overall
  • Danielle
  • Portland, ME, United States
  • 04-18-11

worth every credit!

I just finished listening to this book and I already miss it. I love the characters and the narration. Do yourself a favor and purchase this book!

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  • Story

OK, but not great

Disappointing in the sense that it is a predictable story. It is well written however, and its main interest is the thorough description of life around a circus. I found the music at the beginning and end of some chapters irritating, but I liked how the authored alternated the story between the old man and his younger self. I also thought that the end was very touching and there are lines that will definitely make you think if you have aging parents. Overall it was OK. I just think I had higher expectations after reading all the great reviews.

  • Overall

Great story, even greater narration!

I've always wanted to read this book because my daughters kept urging me. But I was never interested in circus life so I put off reading it until it came up on my audible recommendations. I'm glad I bought it... it's simply wonderful! And it changed my preconceived notion that audio books are boring. This is my first 'listen' (although I have several on my Kindle) and definitely not the last.