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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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This is what Audiobook should be...

This book was a home run all over! Excellent narration, superb storyline, engaging and interesting characters, great imagery and poignant.

The reviews for this book are indicative of how excellent a book this really is. The entire book was done so incredibly well! When I first got this book I didn't really know what to expect, in fact I didn’t even know there was a movie about the book and had I known I probably wouldn’t have got the book due to my aversion at times to overhyped books turned movies... Good thing though because I would have missed out on a very good read...

I found myself fascinated with how the Sara Gruen (the author) introduced Jacob at 23 and at 90 or is it 93 (you'll get it when you read to it). The different struggles with Jacob at these two different stages of life is manoeuvred quite will and interwoven immaculately with the main storyline. I like how the author was able to introduce the topic of growing ‘old and irrelevant’ at one end of the spectrum and being ‘young and impetuous’ at the other end. In both stages (the young and old Jacob) the common thread is tragedy and loss in a sense but eventually finding one’s place once more.

The myriad of characters are all very interesting (as one can expect from a circus) and the relevant characters were all developed quite well! I found all the major and minor characters fascinating... Rose Marie, Uncle Al, Marlena, Camel, Walter, August... I honestly didn’t think any of these characters were short changed in terms of character development in this book and you get to peer into each of them even if it’s just a bit.

Unlike a lot of books that tend to run on incessantly, providing you with seemingly useless details, Water for Elephants doesn't do that. Nor was it too short, it doesn’t leave you thinking that aspects of the books were rushed. It hit that sweet spot that so many books miss some times... that clear, nice balance of not being too long but not being too short and yet still leaves you wanting more. It has its sobering moments that make you nod silently in approval and smiles inwardly leaving you to go through the book a little slower, not wanting to miss the salient, poignant points being mentioned. It of course also has those nail biting moments that makes you sit up a little bit straighter and has you rushing the book trying to figure out what’s next and how everything is going to unfold. The closure at the end of the book was poignant enough and very fitting, but yet I wanted it to continue because it was just so good.

Narration like this is what makes Audible titles and Audiobooks in general worth listening to. David LeDoux portraying John in his 20's was great but John Randolph Jones portraying John in his 90's is AMAZING! I like multiple narrated books and this certainly did not disappoint in any way, shape or form. Inflections were on par, strength of tone was excellent and pacing was superb... A better cast they could not pick and they brought life to these characters in a way I doubt much other narrators could.

I would recommend this to anyone. Excellent writing, pitch perfect narration, engaging story, poignant life truths, sobering in all the right areas, fun in others, great timing, great character development and a very fitting closure. GREAT STUFF!

112 of 118 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

One of the best books this year

Honestly, when I initially read the book summary and saw that it was about circus life, I was turned off and did not want to purchase it. When I read the reviews, I decided to buy it. I generally dislike circuses, but this author detailed circus life with vivid detail and emotion. I was impressed by her depiction of the elderly Jacob and his emotional response to aging. Perhaps this will cause people to regard the elderly with more tender loving care.
The two readers of this book added incredible depth and should be nominated for a grammy. I let my children ages 8 thru 15 listen to this book (there were a few sexually explicit scenes which I fast forwarded through) and they loved it and thought it would make a great movie.

50 of 53 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Great Narration!!

An interesting story of the depression era and all the crazy characters of a struggling circus at that time. I really enjoyed the narration of the main character as he recounts his circus experiences at the age of 93 (...or was it 90); and also the narration of the same character living the experiences as they occurred. Very well written and very well narrated.

56 of 60 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Geff
  • tacoma, WA, USA
  • 06-19-06

A colorful & sweet adventure

Author Sara Gruen has spun a charming and unaffected tale of love, revenge and renewal that is made even more enjoyable by the equally gifted talents of David LeDoux and John Randolph Jones (dual narrators). This audio book was a giggle and a tear rolled into one. I'm very tempted to read a hard copy of this now just to see how it compares (and holds up) to what is now one of my favorite audio books. Superb!

53 of 57 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Rita
  • Arcata, CA, USA
  • 04-28-10

A story to sink your world into

This was an amazing audio book. I just finished it and I already feel empty without it. The narration was spot on, the music was a great touch to really draw me into the life of the "show". I couldn't stop listening and when I did I dreamt of all the wonderful, bright, and vivid characters.

50 of 55 people found this review helpful

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  • Glenda
  • Gallatin, MO, USA
  • 01-08-08

Loved It!

I really loved this book. I had it on my wishlist for quite awhile before buying it and I am so glad I did. The two narrators in this book are wonderful... and in my opinion made the book even better. Love, Love, Loooooved it!

33 of 37 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

There arn't enough stars

This is the best book I have listened to this year and I listen to two books every month. The writing and narration was excellent. If you ask me about most books I read, I have to work hard to remember the plot. I have listened to three long novels since this book and still remember it vividly. It is books like this that make me love

38 of 43 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

A must read!

This book was thoroughly engrossing. I found myself thinking about it all day, and looking forward to the next time I could listen. A wild assortment of characters, brought very much to life. I loved the reader too. I highly recommend this book, especially if you love a happy ending - this one is the best!

51 of 59 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Swept away

This beautifully written story was wonderfully narrated by the two gentlemen as Jacob at 23 & 90...or 93. I absolutely loved it and was sorry when it ended. I especially enjoyed the elder Jacob's view of life in a nursing home. I would highly recommend this as a transporting read. I am listening to it again and enjoying the second time around.

21 of 24 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Allison
  • edwards, CO, United States
  • 07-09-06

Captivating and endearing

The character development in this book is very rich. You become quick 'friends' with the endearing characters, no matter their quirks and downfalls in life. The readers were wonderful. I've listened to this book multiple times!

43 of 50 people found this review helpful

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  • Suzannah
  • 08-16-11

Water for Elephants

Both strangely exotic and nostalgically familiar, this tale of tenderness found in the harsh reality of circus life and enduring love stolen from cruelty is captivating and entrancing. Told through the eyes and voices of an old timer and his younger self, it flips from past to present and back again with ease and manages to bring two stories together with equal strength and interest. A beautiful story that is beautifully read by the narrators.

10 of 10 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Fran
  • 08-30-11


I listened to this for a second time when I had exhausted my new supply while away.
And it was just as enthralling as the first listen.

Brilliantly written and wonderfully read by the two readers.
I can't recommend it highly enough - one of the best audibles I've listened to.

8 of 8 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Kelly
  • 07-05-11

A true love story

A true love story written to thrive in the 21st Centry, from the charactors to the plot line its well written and addictive.........

7 of 7 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Paul
  • 11-15-11

The film does not even get close.

I could not put this book down.
I remember exactly where I was when things happened in this book.
The character of the old man is explored to the fullest extend, this character made the story, and was completely overlooked in the film version.
Perfect for a holiday, or summer commutes, as I did.

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • w
  • 11-07-11

loved it

Unusual subject and not one I would normally choose. It made me laugh and cry. Brilliant. Do read it

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Claire Mills
  • 10-30-11


I wasn't sure if I was going to like this audiobook when I started listening to it as I found the hopping between the current and past a little hard going and the older person's voice difficult to understand at times. But, I'm glad I perservered with it. The story is very original and draws you in. Worth a listen

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • joanna
  • 10-02-11

Wonderfully engaging Big Top Book

This book tells the story of a young man thrown into the life of a circus worker after his parents are killed. The wonderful transition between times takes the listening into two very different but equally compelling settings. Brilliant !!

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • holly bird
  • 06-30-11

Great Original Story

Great to read an original book for a change. I knew nothing about the american circus trains, and now I do! Takes place during the American Depression. The love story is a bit lame but otherwise a terrific listen.

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Annie
  • 10-22-10

I Loved it!

A really enjoyable listen, on a par with 'The Help'. This has been one of those books I couldn't wait to get back to; it was really well structured and well read, I was thoroughly entertained the whole way through. I highly recommend this audiobook.

16 of 18 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Madgey
  • 07-18-11

Enjoyed every single second ….

It left me wanting more…. I did not want the story to end. I laughed and cried. This is a tale simply told, an account that was both funny & sad, on times illustrating the cruelty inherent in some human beings and the goodness of others. The narration was outstanding, it brought the wonderful characters to life and I could really see them through ‘Jacobs’ eyes. It also made me think about the value we place on our elderly population. Can’t wait to watch the film, hope it lives up to the book.

9 of 10 people found this review helpful

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  • Chistine
  • 10-04-17

Elephant brutallity

A well written story. The scenes where the elephant is so cruelly treated were so vivid that I almost stopped listening and felt quite anxious while listening.

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  • Tim
  • 02-12-16

Great book, great narration.

Sorry to finish it. The story started a little slowly but soon exploded with colourful characters and a great description of a time gone by. Loved the book.

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  • Itwasnotmeau
  • 07-08-15

Great book

I loved the story found it hard to stop listening. A sad story very entertaining