Review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

When you enter the ‘big top’, you enter into a world full of illusion and intrigue and here you will find a dark, gritty love story.

Jacob Jankowski is grieving the loss of his parents when he jumps a train bound for anywhere that isn’t his current location. He has boarded a train full of freaks, drunkards, performers, sparkling costumes, and illusion–he has ran away with the circus–literally.

Jacob is able to gain employment as the circus veterinarian where he works closely with the charismatic August, the menagerie superintendent/trainer. August’s wife, Marlene, works as a circus performer as well…..Jacob is infatuated with her the moment he sets eyes on her.

August and Marlene’s marriage is rocky at best and Jacob tries to do his best to not fall in love with Marlene but it’s inevitable….she is breath-taking and refreshing.

As a vet, Jacob is drawn to the animals in the menagerie, but none more so than Rosie the elephant. Rosie and Jacob form a bond that lasts a life time. It is because of Rosie and his love for Marlene, that Jacob endures the darker aspects of the circus.

The Depression-era setting adds depth and grittiness to the plot. The Depression makes men desperate and many turn to alcohol and other seedy outlets for their frustration. Many join the circus simply because there is no other work, while others are hitching a ride to the next town….but some are there for the simple promise of enchantment and illusion.

There is clearly a social divide between the elite performers and the working man. It makes for an interesting blend of characters and conflict….readers get to explore the darker side of the circus–desperation, violence, alcohol, and sex.

Jacob continues to be enamored with Marlene and soon others begin taking notice. It is only a matter or time before August suspects that Jacob’s feelings for Marlene are more than platonic. Everyone on the train knows that August has a dark side, there is no limit to his violence and erratic moods…..and Marlene is his–only his.

But with true love, there is always hope….

When two people are meant to be together, they will be together. It’s fate.

This book had all the things that normally take hold of my heart and won’t let go. I love the romanticism of the circus. I love the gritty, noir-ish books. I love a tragic but happy star crossed lovers tale. But I was only luke warm about this book which really surprised me.

I was really looking forward to reading this since I have heard so many good things about the book….so many have raved about it. Needless to say my expectations were high but all expectations aside, I didn’t think this book lived up to the hype.

Marlene was too bland for me. I was not convinced of her strength, passion, or love for Jacob. On the flip side, I didn’t think Jacob loved her. I thought he was infatuated with her but not in love with her. I didn’t think there was enough interaction between the two characters to warrant a declaration of love.

I like a tormented hero and for me Jacob was too ‘untouched’ and pristine to be tormented. Sure he engages in some wild nights with the circus but he’s too perfect. If he had been more cynical and tormented I would have bought his love for Marlene more. The same goes for Marlene, I didn’t feel her inner struggle between Jacob and August. There was just no tension.

The lack of chemistry was disappointing. For a book that started out with the promise of a darker, passionate, gritty love story….I was hoping for something more fierce and bold. Also the ending wrapped up a little too neatly and cliche for my tastes.

There were aspects of the novel that I did enjoy though. The historic background was well researched and interesting. As a history buff, the circus lifestyle was a topic I enjoyed learning more about. Though I have never been to a circus I have visions of grandiose illusions and almost child-like excitement when I think about it, so for me the setting incentive to keep reading.

I also liked some of the introspective questions that the novel raised, such as growing older and the passage of time. I liked the alternative time periods in the narrative which I thought helped move the story along.

While this book had it’s good points, for me, something was wanting in the passion/chemistry department. It was a fast read and placated my need to read something more adult and contemporary but in the end I simply wanted more.

Challenge/Book Summary:

Book: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

  • Kindle Edition, 362 pages
  • Published May 1st 2007 by Algonquin Books (first published January 1st 2006)
  • ASIN B003I1WY2A

This book counts toward: NA

  • Hosted by: NA
  • Books for Challenge Completed: NA

Recommendation: 3 out of 5 (decent historic fiction but lacks chemistry between the characters)

Genre: Historic fiction, contempo lit, literature

Memorable lines/quotes: 

With a secret like that, at some point the secret itself becomes irrelevant. The fact that you kept it does not.

10 thoughts on “Review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

    1. I haven’t seen the movie yet….mostly because I hear it’s marginal. I wanted to read the book first so if the movie wasn’t good then it wouldn’t cloud my judgement of the book. I think I will watch it this week or next since it’s on HBO now :). Have you seen the movie?

      1. I certainly have seen it and I was quite emotional through the whole thing. My friend and I rented it and we watched it at her place. I don’t remember the reactions that she had towards it. I do remember thinking that I thought others should watch it.

  1. Looks like you and I agree on what we think of many books. I totally felt the same way about this book when I read it. I caught the last half of the movie on cable the other night and as usual, the book was better.

  2. After reading this review, I’m pretty convinced you’d like Tigana. It has a lot of the elements you mention liking in this book, including the romance you hoped for and the introspective questions it raised 🙂

    1. I just ordered Tigana on Amazon today LOL :). After reading your review I read a couple of others and was completely convinced….I think you are right, I think Tigana will be something I really enjoy! I’ve been reading more fantasy books lately…ASOIAF got me hooked on fantasy….and I’ve been looking for more high fantasy series that are more gritty and darker, so I am really excited to read Tigana. Thanks for the fantastic recommendation!

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