Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

May 14, 2011

Plot summary (from the publisher): As a young man, Jacob Jankowski was tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. It was the early part of the great Depression, and for Jacob, now ninety, the circus world he remembers was both his salvation and a living hell. A veterinary student just shy of a degree, he was put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It was there that he met Marlena, the beautiful equestrian star married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. And he met Rosie, an untrainable elephant who was the great gray hope for this third-rate traveling show. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and, ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.

Warning: Spoilers below!


  • It’s clear that Gruen did a lot of research for this book. The circus scenes felt authentic, and some of the language seemed to come from that time period (though some was distinctly modern as well). When I was reading, the setting came through loud and clear.
  • Walter was an interesting character — maybe the most interesting of the bunch. I thought Gruen could have done something more with his backstory or his developing friendship with Jacob. I would have enjoyed reading about that. But what a terrible ending Walter endured…. redlighted off a trestle and left to die all alone with two broken legs? Wow.
  • I know a lot of readers have complained that the stuff involving Rosie was too hokey and cheesy. I can totally understand their point of view, but I have to say I liked it. I don’t pretend to know anything about animals in general or about what elephants in particular can do, so Gruen may indeed have been far off in her descriptions. But I developed a soft spot for Rosie, just as Jacob did, and I got just as angry whenever August started beating on her.
  • I liked the ending. Yes, it was totally far-fetched, but that was the only time I warmed to old-man Jacob.


  • There wasn’t any tension in this book at all. We know that Jacob lived to a ripe old age, so all the talk about redlighting meant someone else was going to get tossed, not him. His older self mentioned having been married to his one true love for more than sixty years, and since there was never another woman mentioned, we knew that he would end up with Marlena. To me, those two outcomes should have remained in doubt to at least add some conflict and give the characters something to work towards.
  • August was such a caricature of a villain that it was hard to take him seriously. All that was missing was a long mustache that he would twirl while hatching evil plans. Of course a beautiful, kind, gentle soul like Marlena would end up marrying an utter brute like August [/sarcasm]. Isn’t that how it always works? Then she can be the damsel in distress for the hero of the story to come and save. Ugh.
  • Speaking of “heroes,” Jacob was such a timid one that he didn’t deserve to get the girl in the end. Seriously, if any literary protagonist needed a healthy dose of the best testosterone supplements, it was this guy. I spent most of the book just wishing he would grow a pair and take care of August himself.
  • As much as I liked Rosie, I could barely contain myself when it turned out that she was the one that killed August by tearing her stake out of the ground, splitting his head open with it, and then calmly planting the stake back in place. WTF???? The whole scene was pretty damn absurd, but I might have been able to swallow it still — if the elephant hadn’t planted her stake back in the ground after she was done!!! Now come on, my suspension of disbelief can only extend so far! And just how convenient was it that Rosie killed August so neither Jacob nor Marlena would have to get their hands dirty? I was wondering which one of them would actually commit the deed, so the fact that Rosie did it was the only surprise in the entire book.


To be honest, the only reason I picked up this book was because of all the rave reviews I’ve seen and because of the amount of time it has spent on the New York Times bestseller list. I expected Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen to be a highly engaging novel with vivid characters, a memorable setting, and a terrific story, but basically got your average clichéd love story. Seriously, take away the circus setting, and this book probably wouldn’t have even been published! I give it 3 stars out of 5.

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