Saturday, April 30, 2011

Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen

An atmospheric, gritty, and compelling novel of star-crossed lovers, set in the circus world circa 1932, by the bestselling author of Riding Lessons.

When Jacob Jankowski, recently orphaned and suddenly adrift, jumps onto a passing train, he enters a world of freaks, grifters, and misfits, a second-rate circus struggling to survive during the Great Depression, making one-night stands in town after endless town. A veterinary student who almost earned his degree, Jacob is put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It is there that he meets Marlena, the beautiful young star of the equestrian act, who is married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. He also meets Rosie, an elephant who seems untrainable until he discovers a way to reach her.

Beautifully written, Water for Elephants is illuminated by a wonderful sense of time and place. It tells a story of a love between two people that overcomes incredible odds in a world in which even love is a luxury that few can afford.

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS was first published in 2006 and was a best seller ~ due to an upcoming movie release it's having a new popularity BOOM

I am not particularly a fan of Rob Pattinson or Reese Witherspoon but I was intrigued to check out a best-selling critically acclaimed book set in the 30's back when circus's were a pretty big thing...

My thoughts?

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is a frame story opening with Jacob as an old codger (in his 90's) in a nursing home ~ but the bulk of the story is set in the 1930's when Jacob is in his first months with the circus (in his 20's). I did find the present day story (nursing home) kind of boring* and interrupting to the flow of the circus stuff ~ but as a whole, I appreciated the added dimension this gives the story once I'd finished ~ gave it a more melancholy feel, which I liked. *(although I have heard that it is this part of the story that strongly resounds with people ~ great "book club discussion" issues about nursing homes and quality of life, etc...)

I was really impressed with the whole circus world Gruen created. This is one of those books where you feel transported to the time and place and at the end you are left feeling like you experienced the world. It was vibrant and messy and you can nearly smell, taste, feel and hear everything going on. 

My edition had photos from the old circus days ~ of animals and setting up the tents and of the train and of the sideshow "freaks" and I LOVED that. 

I also LOVED TO DEATH all the interesting little stories that were woven in from real circus trivia and events (Gruen talks about her months of research in an author's note at the end of the book). Stuff like the toothless lion, the way a few of the characters die, some of the animals antics, freak show people, the dead hippo on display as alive, etc. My son is always showing me stuff out of his Ripley's Believe It or Not books (mostly the gruesome freakish things) and in places this book was a little reminiscent of that ~ especially if you take time to read the author's note at the end ~ which I recommend, hey)


Despite a gorgeous and intriguing era and setting...

I felt a more than a smidgen let down by the characters. Some were colourful and endearing and felt genuine, but most felt cliché or almost caricatures ~ like over-the-top cartoon characters. 

I was particularly Bored To Absolute Death with Marlena (Reese Witherspoon's character in the film). The romance was obviously a key plot point ~ but I just couldn't buy into it. Marlena seemed to have no personality ~ so I really wasn't rooting for her, you know? I was disappointed as I always like a bit of a funky/star-crossed romance ~ so major 'eye-rolling' let-down there.

Also ~ a discussion point: ~ I didn't like the prologue (a key scene from the climax of the novel ~ which gives away aspects of the ending). I would have preferred to not be clued into it at the beginning. And I felt in hindered me from that initial absorption into the story. You had to read a past tense chapter (but a future scene in the past), then present day chapter, then the past tense in the frame story. Ugh. What an opener. 

And as for the present day ending. LOL. Really? Ah, well, I guess some people dig a really cute hollywood ending ;) 

Okay, okay. So, overall ~ I am glad I read this one. I think the whole experience will stay with me. I recommend it and my tip is to give yourself a few chapters to settle into it. I did enjoy it but I cannot say I care about the characters. Harsh, but true, haha. 

As for the movie? It's not a hugely plot driven novel so I'm thinking it may be a tad either boring/overly sentimental or (depending on the screenplay) too melodramatic love story for me. It's not calling out to me but when my library gets the dvd I'll possibly check it out.

Here's the movie trailer:

Water For Elephants @ goodreads (it's booming there and rated much more highly than I gave it ~ I went with 3 stars).
Water For Elephants @ Rotten Tomatoes (OUCH! It's bombing out a bit, hey).

Have you read the book?
Seen the flick? (recently hit the big screen in the US ~ not yet in Australia)
Planning on doing either?


  1. I don't like that cover! I will go and see the movie, although it has to be said that I wasn't particularly thrilled with the casting of it. I guess will just have to wait and see before passing final judgement.

  2. That cover is gorgeous!!!

    When I initially read the prologue, I was upset at having read it because I thought it gave too much away. For some reason, I forgot about it until I was reading that scene again in the book.

    I'm sorry you didn't like it as much as you could have(not saying you didn't like it at all), I really loved it! I loved the movie too! :)

    Great review!

  3. This is a book that's constantly recommended to me on Amazon, but I just don't know if it's the kind of book I'll like. I've seen the movie trailer, and hmmm, I dunno.

    Also, I've always hated circuses, so maybe that's why!

  4. I've this book sitting on my shelf since ages! I plan to read it soon, but have no intention of watching the movie since I don't like either of the main actors. I am a bit disappointed about the clichéd characters you mentioned.

  5. I've been iffy for a while whether or not tor ead this, I've been wanting to give it a try because of all the movie hype, but I'm afraid it'll be a letdown. I think after your review, I might still read it, but maybe be a bit wary of it. Anyways, great review =)

  6. I have to read this and come back so I can share my thoughts. Great honest review.

  7. I read the novel a few years ago and loved it. Because of that, I will not be going to see the movie. Robert P has the charisma of a drying puddle!

  8. My friend Becca is trying to get me to read this one but it's just not my thing. Your review has confirmed it :P

    Don't think I'll watch the movie either ;) I can't stand Rpatz

  9. I'm going to be seeing the movie (sometime) after it comes out, and the book is on my holds list, along with Ape House, also by Sara.
    ( :

  10. man oh man. i read water for elephants when it first came out because it was the 'it' pick of every critic between here and the artic.

    i was so unimpressed with it. and completely for the same reason's you were a little let down. it just: didn't live up to the hype in such a MAJOR way. it was a mediocre book and i was annoyed i'd been duped.

  11. I've heard other people say the same as you - has all the elements to be a great story but there's something lacking. I'll probably read it someday just out of curiosity (it's one of those books everyone talks about) but I don't think I'll be expecting too much. I might end up being pleasantly surprised :-)

  12. Hi Nomes. Reece Witherspoon usually delivers so I'm surprised at your summing up of her role. Maybe she misread the character. I hate it when a film doesn't live up to the expectations of the book (well, it never does, does it?)

    As always, thanks for a great review. I like thelook of The Queen's Lady too.


  13. great review as always nomes! Just stopped by to let you know you got 3rd place in my blog giveaway! i sent you a twitter message so i can confirm your email address.

    i dont know if i will read the book or watch the movie, but i enjoyed your breakdown and combined with the trailer, i feel like i have done both already :) xxx

  14. My sisters keep telling me to read this book, and I fear that I'll have the same reaction you did. So many other books that I think I'd find more interesting.

    Unrelated note: I just ordered Feeling Sorry for Celia and Looking For Alibrandi because they've been on my TBR list forever (and my library doesn't have them). Looking forward to reading these Aussie faves. :)

  15. I'm very interested in both the book and movie. Will definitely have to check both out!

  16. I enjoyed but didn't love the book. Did you guess the ending based on the prologue - I didn't!

    I think the trailer is great, but probably contains all the best bits and the movie will be a bit long and not worth getting a baby sitter for - LOL!

  17. I had exactly the same experience of this book as you did, I loved the world and the anecdotes and was fascinated by the research, but the story itself didn't win me over, it felt tacked on. I don't think I'll watch the film.


Thanks for the commenty love :)