Book Review: Water For Elephants (Sara Gruen) Paperback 331 Pages

Posted: October 24, 2012 in Books

Life is looking up for Jacob Jankowski, despite being a young man in the 1930’s, he has a promising future ahead of him.  He is studying to be a veteranarian, and plans to continue the veteranary practice started by his father.He is onhe or two exams from achieving his final goal when the unthinkable happens.  Jacob’s parents are killed in a car accident.  Alone for the first time in his life, Jacob hops a circus train for the Benzini Brothers circus, and just hopes hecan make it through the first night without getting thrown out on his ear.  Luckily for Jacob, an elderly man named Camel takes Jacob under his wing, and gets Jacob a job. mostly cleaning out the stockrooms on the trains.  Jacob hopes to use his vetranary skills to take care of the animals, he does almost have a degree at Cornell, but taking care of the animals in the circus seems as far away as his potential college degree.


First Jacob has to get used to daily life, and part of that daily life is rooming with a little person named Kinko, or Walter.  Kinko resents Jacob at first, because Kinko is a performer and Jacob is not, and Jacob is nearly a college grad while Kinko’s education is limited to reading bawdy comic books.  Jacob and Kinko eventually become friends,and Kinko lets Jacob call him Walter.  In a life of life changing moments Jacob has another life-changing moment when he meets Marlena, she has an equestrian act, and her husband August is in charge of the animal acts, so he is potentially Jacob’s boss.  Despite the fact that Marlena is married to Auggie as she calls him, Jacob is head over heels in love with Marlena, and determined to at least get to know her better.  August is nothing but gracious at first not only recommending Jacob for the vet job to circus ringleader, and head of the circus  Uncle Al, but also offering Jacob new clothes and a chance to dine with Marlena and himself.  August seems to sense that Jacob is interested in his wife, one of the first assignments he gives to Jacob is to feed the lion.  The lion actually bites Jacob, but he has no teeth, so all Jacob has to show for his effotts is a few welts, but that incident serves as a warning. As time goes on, Jacob learns that day to day life in a circus is not the glamorous life it is cracked up to be.  Uncle Al barely if ever pays the performers, angry crowds form when the Benzini Brothers leave town early or end a peformance too soon.  The polish has worn off his relationship with August as well, he sees flashes of anger and jearlousy directed at both him and Marlena, but Marlena seems to take the abuse in stride and continue to be the loving and faithful wife she always is.  As time passes. Marlena and Jacob get closer, and she confides to Jacob that August is abusive to her, and he seems to suffer from bi-polar disorder, happy, cheerful, and confident one minute, and angry, accusatory, and abusive the next.  Despite the fact that Jacob tells Marlena he loves her, and they share several kisses, Marlena is commited to being August’s wife.


Then good fortune seens to smile on the Benzini Brothers circus as another circus fails, and Uncle Al is there to scoop up the remains.  One of the animal acts that the Benzini circus is a bull elephant named Rosie, and despite the fact that she seems to know no tricks, the crowds seem to love Rosie.  Exasperated with noy being able to teach Rosie tricks,August takes to beating Rosie with a bull hook.  Desparate to keep Rosie, and stop the beatings, Jacob figures out that Rosie responds to commands in Polish, because Jacob speaks Polish to Rosie and she responds.  Jacob teachesd August a few commands in Polish and Rosie becimes the star of the show.  The money starts rolling in, there are even rumors that the performers might get paid.  Soon enough, the ugly side of the circus shows itself.  August accuses Marlena of having an affair with Jacob, and gives Marlena a black eye, and Uncle Al promises to clear the train of the roustabouts who he accuses of eating all the food.  Jacob has had it, he plans to kill August escape with Marlena, Walter and Camel, and startover in the next town.  Does his plan succeed?  Read Water for Elephants and find out.


This is a light and entertaining book, a quick read, I would call it chick lit, but there’s enough drunken debauchery by men and enough strippers doing veil dances, tp keep men entertained.  This is not a book without flaws however.  It seeems like Jacob, the protagonist, and August the antagonist, are the most well-drawn characters, the other characters, including Marlena seem to only be crudely drawn sketches of characters.  And once again the woman, as in many of these novels is reduced to a damsel in distress waiting for a hero to rescue her from her dire circumstances. I would expect more insight and empthy about the plight of abused women from a female author, but alas, no.  Camel and Walter are even sketchier characters.  Somtimes Gruen also forgets that she is writing in the 1930’s and slips too much modern slang in her prose, that’s annoying. She also mentions that August is Jewish several times, as if that has anything to do with his abusive nature, his ethnicity should never have been mentioned.   I liked the way the issue facing Jacob was rseolved, but some might think the plot device used was gimmicky.


Undooubtedly meticulously detailed schenes of the circus, painstaikenly researched, makes this book fun to read.  An easy light read with heavy undertones.


Water For Elephants: Let it soak over you,



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