Book Review: Water for Elephants
June 1, 2011


In the book Water for Elephants, we meet 23 year-old Jacob Jankowski, just when he is about to sit for his veterinary medicine exams at Cornell University. Finding himself penniless and without a family during the Great Depression, Jacob jumps upon a circus train belonging to The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth! There he meets Marlena, a talented yet demure circus performer and her husband, August, the head animal trainer. Quickly we learn that August is an unstable man, abusive towards not only his wife but also Rosie, a lovable elephant! Jacob and Marlena connect with Rosie on a level that any animal lover will appreciate. Together, Marlena and Rosie develop a captivating circus routine full of pink sequins and brave acrobatics that leaves audiences all over the country in awe.

Interestingly, the reader also becomes acquainted with Jacob seventy years later, mocking a fellow resident of his nursing home who claims to have also worked in the circus and carried water for the elephants. As Jacob flashes back to his life, a love triangle between Marlena, Jacob and August develops. Meanwhile, August's impulsive fits of madness and paranoia exemplify the confusion and sadness those with schizophrenia truly experience. But it is the growing love between Jacob, Marlena and the wise Rosie as he reminisces about his life in the circus, that will keep you turning the pages.

The most fascinating aspect of Sara Gruen's story is the historically accurate yet intriguing depiction of circus life during this time. We learn about circus workers being "red lighted" or thrown off the moving train as punishment or severance from the circus leaders to avoid paying their wages. Another interesting aspect of this time period was a form of paralysis caused by drinking Jamaican ginger that plagued thousands of people during the 1930's called "Jake Leg."

A review from the Washington Post describes this reading experience as follows:"You'll get lost in the tatty glamour of Gruen's meticulously researched world, from spangled equestrian pageantry and the sleazy side to an ill-fated night at a Chicago speak-easy." Should you choose to pick up the New York Times Bestseller, you will be entertained by the twists, turns and final destination of these characters.

Members of the same Fort Dodge book club had the following comments:

Beth Schnurr "enjoyed reading Water For Elephants. It takes place in a fascinating era that I haven't read a lot about. Life in the circus in the early 1930's was full of adventure and many colorful characters. I was very pleased and surprised by the unexpected ending. This is a fun beach read."

Becky Cady also "enjoyed the reason is because it takes place during the Depression and centered around a Circus family........I know very little about Circus life so it was fun to read about all of the good and evil that went on aboard the circus train........!"

Jill Mullholland, "liked it and thought it was interesting how the characters in the book 'communicated' with the animals. It seemed like they could really understand the animals' feelings." She further said, "Anyone that likes animals would like Water for Elephants." She added, "I also thought the book was very descriptive, you could really feel the different personalities of the circus family."

More often than not, a movie based on a great book doesn't do it justice. However, the film adaptation of this historical novel actually impresses with Robert Pattinson as Jacob, Reece Witherspoon as Marlena and Christopher Waltz as August, definitely a surprise for the reader! Unfortunately, the recently released movie does not include as much of the current day ninety year-old Jacob. And this is one disappointment for the viewer as his character is played by Hal Holbrook, an amazing actor! Holbrook does a wonderful job portraying someone who has experienced a truly deep love for not only his wife but circus life as well.

So for those of you who have not yet read the romantic page-turner or seen the blockbuster, consider picking up the pages or enjoying the big screen story. You will be mesmerized by the fascinating world of circus life in the 1930's as well as the love shared between Jacob, Marlena and their dear elephant, Rosie. And if you're so inclined, consider getting together with your friends to discuss Water for Elephants while nibbling on a circus peanut or some cracker jacks!


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