Book Review for “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen

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I’m sure most of you have at least heard of, if not read, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. I watched the movie a few years ago and until I started reading this book, I had honestly forgotten I had ever watched it. I really don’t remember much about the movie and I’m not sure why because I really like the book. I’ll get into my thoughts after the synopsis. There will be spoilers.


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, drifters, 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.

My Thoughts

Overall, I really enjoyed this book but it does have some issues. Historical fiction is my favorite genre so that was a point in the story’s favor from the beginning. I haven’t read many books that take place during the Great Depression so I was excited to see that portrayed here. However, this book really doesn’t do a great job of it. I felt like the characters honestly could have been living in any time throughout history. There was nothing that made the characters or atmosphere feel like the impoverished 1930’s except for a few instances of the circus workers not getting paid on time or the occasional hobo. The language, for the most part, was contemporary and just didn’t create much of an atmosphere.

As for the characters, I really liked them for the most part. I feel like Marlena is the least developed, which is a shame. We know that she’s beautiful, talented, kind hearted and married to a mentally ill man; that’s pretty much it. She’s the love of Jacob’s life but he kind of falls in love with her for no reason except the attributes mentioned above. It’s honestly a love at first sight kind of deal. To me, it seems like he falls in love with the idea of saving her from August and playing hero but then he genuinely falls in love with her.  I would have liked to know more about her but I’m a sucker for romance so I won’t complain too much about her ending up with the “good” guy for no real reason.

I do feel it’s important to note the graphic nature of this book. Sex is prevalent throughout the entire book. It’s nothing too intense but it’s definitely more than what would be suitable for younger readers. There’s also some pretty traumatic and gruesome deaths.

It may sound like I didn’t enjoy this book but I really did. Other than the atmosphere and Marlena’s lack of development, it was an excellent read. I especially loved reading elderly Jacob’s point of view in the nursing home. There were MULTIPLE parts that made me tear up. It was so moving because it touches on a stark truth for all of us that get to grow old; one day we’re going to be alone and when we look in the mirror, we won’t recognize the person looking back. All we’ll have to hold onto is our memories. To keep it from getting too heavy, however, Jacob joins the circus in his nineties after sneaking away from the nursing home to watch the show.

If you’re wanting a gritty summer romance, this is the book for you. If you’ve read Water for Elephants and/or seen the movie, let me know what you thought about it! Thanks for reading and have a great day!

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