Review: Water for Elephants- Sara Gruen

water for elephants

I read this book because as a general rule, I like to read a book before seeing the film. What I found was a pacy read exploding with fun and drama and overall, I absolutely loved Water for Elephants.

The narrator is a hilariously cranky ninety-three year old man called Jacob Jankowski, bored and neglected in an old people’s residence, and looking back on a period of his life that was his salvation, but also a living hell.

At aged twenty-three during depression- era America, young, penniless and orphaned,  Jacob’s life takes an unexpected turn when he accidentally joins the Benzini Brother’s Most Spectacular Show on Earth Circus. He quickly falls for Marlena, one of the show’s performers- but she is married to August, an unpredictable and violent man who treats the circus animals with cruelty and contempt. The reader is propelled into a tale of danger, anger, violence and passion in a couple’s desperate attempt to be together, and not without some devastating consequences.

I cannot hit home enough how much I loved this book.

The historical context for the setting is, for me personally, the main thing that makes Water for Elephants so appealing. Of course you have the fun side of the circus, where lions roar, horses dance and sequins and glitter flash. But Gruen also offers us the grim and dark side of the circus in 30s America where everyday it was a struggle to survive, and no one knew what the future held. And so the lives of those in the circus went- the exhausting task of of travelling from town to town, day in and day out, setting it all up before tearing it all down- the performers, freaks, animals and behind the scenes ‘working men’ who all ate, performed and worked together- because working in a circus was better than living starving, homeless and penniless like thousands of others across America.

”More cheering, more adulation. Marlena spreads her arms in the air, turning to give each section of the audience a chance to adore her. Then she turns to Midnight and perches delicately on his lowered back. He rises, arches his neck, and carries Marlena from the big top.” 

Some reviews have criticised the novel for its sex scenes but come on- it’s depression era America in the circus, there’s bound to be sex and booze ( despite the prohibition!) Others have criticised Gruen for her stereotypical image of August being the violent husband due to his schizophrenia. I disagree. The impression that I formed was that August was a cruel and heartless person to the bone- with or without his mental illness. I do agree however that Marlena was a bit of a flat character with no personality about her. She’s the typical gorgeous blonde girl who doesn’t really say much, but for this Gruen more than makes up for with the characterisation of Jacob. I loved that the narration switched between the 23 year old to the ninety three year old, exposing the warm wit of an old man mulling over the indignities of old age.

Water for Elephants is a wonderful novel that blends fact and fiction, hurling at you the chaotic life of the circus against the harsh and haunting background of depression-era America. Cruelty and danger stews in the heart of it all, but laughter and small acts of kindness persevere that makes the novel so touching and full of emotion. The most unlikely of friendships are formed- even with a 2500 pound elephant- and its depiction of the relationship between human and animal is one of the many factors that makes the novel so endearing. Beautifully written and full of imagination and wit, enter the world of the circus and you will not put the book down.


“Dear God. Not only am I unemployed and homeless, but I also have a pregnant woman, bereaved dog, elephant, and eleven horses to take care of.”


Rating: 5/5

Do I recommend you to read it? Yes

Genre: historical/ romance