BOOK REVIEW: Water For Elephants – by Sara Gruen

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Title: Water For Elephants
Author: Sara Gruen
Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance, Drama
First published: May 26th 2006
Finished reading: May 17th 2014
Pages: 335
Rating 2,5

“There is no question that I am the only thing standing between these animals and the business practices of August and Uncle Al, and what my father would do–what my father would want me to do–is look after them, and I am filled with that absolute and unwavering conviction. No matter what I did last night, I cannot leave these animals. I am their shepherd, their protector.”

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I didn’t exactly know what to expect when I started reading Water For Elephants and I cannot say I liked the novel now that I’ve finished it. Sure, a story set in the 1930s and about the life in a circus sounds interesting enough. Sure, Sara Gruen clearly researched the theme very well and was able to incorporate various circus anecdotes in her story. But in my humble opinion she failed to make the characters, and especially the main characters Jacob and Marlena, believable. The way she describes both young and old Jacob feels forced and unnatural. She uses the various and in my opinion unnecessary sex scenes to try and make Jacob more manly. The problem is that it doesn’t work and the scenes just became plain annoying. The character of Marlena is described with cliches, and it didn’t make me care what happened to her at all (except for the part that included unnecessary violence maybe) In fact, I find most characters rather flat and boring. It’s all about Jacob (the good guy) trying to get the girl (Marlena), who is married to the bad guy (August). It can’t get more cliche than that.

The other fact that annoyed me was the excessive amount of animal cruelty and violence used to describe the situation in the circus. Although I understand the story is set in a different era and things were different back then, I cannot stop to believe that Sara Gruen used an excessive amount of violence. And especially when talking about the way August treats the circus animals….In my opinion the fact that August is cruel and clearly the bad guy becomes also clear without the continual mistreating of both animals and people alike. The overdose of violence just made me very annoyed and didn’t add anything to the story.

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 The story is told by the old Jacob, who is in his nineties and lives in a retirement home. His wife had died some time before and his family seems to have forgotten him… He tries to remember both his wife and his glory days with memories that surfaced after witnessing a circus tent installed close to the retirement home. He travels back to the 1930s, back when he was in his twenties and a time colored by the Depression and the prohibition… After his parents die, young Jacob loses everything and is forced to abandon home and study. (He was close to becoming a vet.) During the night he sees something that turns out to be a real circus train, and he decides to hop on board. It was not easy to get accepted, but an old working man named Camel helped him earn a spot with the circus crew. When they find out he’s almost an official vet, he gets hired to care for the animals. The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth circus owns odd bits and pieces of various circus shows gone broke, and its owner Uncle Al is always looking for something or someone new he can buy from the next circus that collapses. 

Things turn interesting when Uncle Al buys an elephant, Rosie. Seemingly dumb, they later discover that she only responds to Polish and she becomes the star of the show. Jacob in the meantime is deeply in love with Marlena, the showgirl that works with horses and the new elephant. But it’s an impossible love since she is married to the violent August, and to make things worse he is in charge with all the animals. So as a vet, Jacob is forced to work with him. Violence escalates, and one day a disaster happens…

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Like I said before, I had some mayor issues with Water For Elephants. Both the lack of dept and credibility of the characters and the excessive use of violence made me enjoy this novel way less than I thought I would when I started reading. I guess that if you are able to ignore those rather big problems I had, you might enjoy the novel anyway since the storyline itself is quite interesting. Approach with caution…

14 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: Water For Elephants – by Sara Gruen

  1. Pingback: Listing the reading | It's All About Books

  2. It sounds like the movie was better than the book – not something you often see. Great review! In the movie the violence was there, but not that excessive. If you haven’t watched it, perhaps it will soften the story for you a little.

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    • I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I might give it a try. I don’t mind violence in movies or books, as long as it adds to the story. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case in Water For Elephants…

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  3. I agree, I wasn’t a fan of this book either. At first I felt bad because it seemed like everyone else loved it, but I just couldn’t connect to the characters and the romance as a whole felt contrived and unbelievable. Great review though, you do a wonderful job of highlighting the plot and explaining why you didn’t enjoy the novel.

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    • I know exactly what you mean. I read a lot of positive reviews of Water For Elephants, but I just couldn’t connect to the story. A shame because I think it really had potential…

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  4. I remember reading this book when it first came out and feeling such empathy for the animals. This is a parable about life outside our tidy, nice bubble that most of us live in every day whether the cruelty is towards people, nations, animals, or the land. I may read it again upon reading your post. Thanks.

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    • It is true that the book takes us out of our comfort zone and Sara Gruen was able to show us a world foreign to most of us. And I guess there are different ways to see and explain the cruelty described in the book. I myself found it to be too much, but I’ve read a lot of positive reviews too. I might read Water For Elephants again later on to see if my perception changes…

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  5. Water for Elephants is a book I must still read. I do actually have a copy of it and one of the reasons I haven’t picked it up yet is because I’m scared I wouldn’t enjoy the book. I enjoyed the movie though.

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    • I haven’t seen the movie; I guess I should go see it… It might even change the way I think about Water For Elephants. If you have your own copy of Water For Elephant, I say go for it. The storyline itself is interesting enough for sure.

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    • I really should watch the movie; a lot of people seem to mention it and it might change the way I see the book. And yes, you’re absolutely right. Nowadays almost every single book seems to be a New York Times Bestseller, making the title lose its value and more and more people will be starting to ignore the mere mention of it.

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