• Water For Elephants: Worth the Hype?

    Posted Posted by Guest Writer in Rants & Raves     Comments 13 comments

    If you want escapism, a step above a beach read, Water for Elephants is a viable choice. I read the book in two days. While I enjoyed immersing myself in Sara Gruen’s rich descriptions of Depression-era circus life and a sweet love story, I found myself annoyed with several things. Narrator Jacob Jankowski loses his parents while he’s a senior vet student at Cornell, quits school during his final exams, and just happens to hop a circus train that needs a vet. Now that’s a strong (if a little too convenient) set-up, but the way Gruen portrays Jacob’s loss lacks depth. Jacob doesn’t grieve much over his parents except immediately after their death, and the whole ordeal seems like a mere plot mechanism by the end of the book. It’s not that Jacob reads like a stock character–despite sometimes acting like a “callow youth”–but that he seems so unshaped by his life before and after the circus.

    Aside from Jacob’s absent grief and immature shallowness, his character is underdeveloped in other ways. Part of the novel focuses on Jacob as an old man living miserably in a nursing home. In his youth, Jacob is impulsive and good-hearted, but as an old man he’s whiny and stereotypically crotchety. How he became so self-centered and irritable over the years isn’t explained, so there’s a great gulf between old Jacob and young Jacob. It’s as if they’re two different people, one I liked much more than the other (young Jacob was tolerable, but old Jacob was downright irritating). Then again, if I had to live in nursing home, I’m sure I’d become curmudgeonly.

    Gruen does a better job at giving Jacob’s relationships with other characters depth and credibility. Jacob falls in love with an equestrian circus performer named Marlena, and there’s none of that immediate, feverish obsession of the likes of Romeo and Juliet. They’re a believable couple. Jacob and Marlena’s love has complexity, and that’s partially due to the love triangle dynamic between them and Marlena’s husband August, the lead animal trainer. August takes Jacob under his wing initally, but he shows his sadistic streak early on when he manipulates Jacob into a life-threatening situation. Jacob struggles between hating August and relying on his good graces to keep his job. August is a wife batterer and, according to the fellow circus members, a paranoid schizophrenic. Honestly, if August is anything, it’s a sociopath. Perhaps Gruen intended to highlight how people categorized mental illnesses back in the thirties. Whatever disorder August has, he’s an intense, unpredictable character and one of the better-written ones.

    Until the last few chapters, I’d have given this book three or three and a half stars. I could’ve handled the aforementioned issues, except for the ending. The ending contains a few instances of deux ex machina, which gives the denouement a rushed feeling. The last chapter itself is anticlimactic and unrevealing. I felt like I invested so much for such little return. Overall, Jacob doesn’t grow from his experiences in the circus, other than becoming more comfortable with sex (he’s a 21-year-old virgin at the novel’s start). That’s why I’d give Water For Elephants two and a half stars. It starts out with a great framework, but it lacks substance or growth in the principle characters. But, if you’re looking for pure entertainment, it does the job.


    In addition to writing for WriteByNight’s blog, Jenna Cooper writes for BE Mag and a blog called FemThreads. Aside from writing, Jenna served as an AmeriCorps Member from 2008-2010 and will start her M.S. in Information Studies in Fall 2012. She graduated in 2009 with a B.A. in English from the University of Texas.

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    I agree. I thought it was really fun, but I wouldn’t give it an amazing rating because some things didn’t match up too well. What bothered me the most was some of the dialogue. They didn’t use the term “hooking up” in depression-era America like we use it now, so dialogue like that always took me out of the story. There were other phrases, too, but that’s the one I remember the most. I did like the book, though. It was a completely entertaining, quick read and I would recommend it to people who are just looking for a fun… Read more »


    I remember a few instances of the dialogue sounding too contemporary, but it wasn’t so obtrusive that it ruined the mood. Her Depression-era circus slang was well researched, at least.

    Laura Roberts

    Agreed. Joining the circus was certainly fun, but losing both his parents and dropping out of med school was barely dealt with. Strange, also, that although the circus becomes his life, his family so totally abandons him somewhere along the way and we find him in this nursing home. None of his people show up to see him? When did he change to make them hate him so much? I also found those unanswered questions troubling, but I think Gruen wanted to use the device of his failing memory to excuse or explain all errors. I was, however, more impressed… Read more »


    I like your theory that Gruen might have used Jacob’s failing memory as a way to skip all the in between stuff. It would enable her to narrow in on his time at the circus.


    “Jacob is impulsive and good-hearted, but as an old man he’s whiny and stereotypically crotchety. How he became so self-centered and irritable over the years isn’t explained, ” I don’t think anyone in their 30s ever questions this plot point. By your 40s, you’ve probably lived it one or two days yourself. Aging is just depressing. It’s been a really long time since I read the book but I can see how he got from point A to point B (good hearted to crotchety). The circus was apparently the best time of his life, for good or for bad. Then… Read more »

    Diane Owens

    I agree with Riki. I loved the book. It was full of vivid imagery and great writing. As someone who works with the elderly, I thought the nursing home scenes and the elderly Jacob were spot on.


    And thinking about it a little more, older folks are on all types of meds, they get tired early, they get annoyed by people easily, and this guy is obviously living a bit in the past and has a lot of regrets. I don’t think this plot point should minimize your enjoyment of the story.


    The ending more than the plot point hampered my reading experience. I could deal with not knowing exactly how Jacob turned into a grumpy old man, but not with the rushed ending. I felt like events happened in such quick succession without being given due consideration. That contrasted so much with the rest of the novel. One of the things I liked best about it was that Gruen wrote so vividly that I sometimes forgot I was reading and not living through Jacob’s eyes. But when she returned to the scene she began with “in medias res,” (being vague here… Read more »


    I loved this book. The only issue I have with it (SPOILER ALERT!) is the all-too-convenient ending, with Jacob once again running off and joining the circus. How realistic is it that the circus manager, on the basis of several hours’ conversation, would take upon himself the responsibility for a 93+ year old stranger straight out of a nursing home – even one who is a walking, talking alumnus of the Benzini Brothers’ Most Spectacular Show on Earth? As to Jacob’s lack of mourning, I have to disagree. I very much felt the depth of his sorrow. It was a… Read more »


    I see your point about how living in a nursing home made Jacob bitter. It was just such a departure from the way Jacob was in his youth. He didn’t become bitter because he was cheated out of a home and an education; he was resourceful and stoic. I guess in my experience I’ve often seen bitterness as an emotion that grows slowly over the years, but I suppose Jacob lost his autonomy over a long period of time. People often treat you differently when they perceive you as “elderly”, and I’m sure it was something Jacob noticed increasingly over… Read more »


    My friends raved and raved about this book,so much that despite not wanting to read a book about the circus, I got the audiobook and the eBook. I started with the audiobook, which had a narrator that I just didn’t connect with. There were long spans of prose that just irritated me because had I been reading the book, I would have rather skimmed. Since I was held hostage, I resented having to jaunt through Jacob’s memories. I liked Jacob, some. Not a whole lot, but I think that was more an issue with the narrator than anything. Like others,… Read more »


    Since MJones is bringing up the audiobook (which I think is a slightly different experience than reading), anyone watch the film? I didn’t catch it but was wondering if it was as enjoyable. Of course, if you didn’t like the book, you probably didn’t see the film.


    No, but Reese Witherspoon and whatshisname is not a box office draw for me.

    And to clarify, around halfway through, I switched to the book. I couldn’t take the audiobook anymore.

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