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Book Review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

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Capturing the illuminate and pure magic of the circus is no easy task for an author. Sara Gruen filled Water for Elephants to the brim with the pure ecstasy that is a traveling circus. Her novel is raw and gritty to the core as it releases the truth behind the curtain of The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth through the experiences of the young Jacob Jankowski.

Water for Elephants starts off with Jacob Jankowsi in an assisted living home with Jacob rotting away toward the end of his life. Bitter, alone, and vengeful, my heart swelled for Jacob as an old man desperate to grasp onto the past and keep any source of life left in him close. Jacob battles back and forth through his memory throughout the book, reliving his days as a veterinarian in the circus.

As a young man in his early twenties, Jacob’s parents are killed in a tragic car accident. Jacob is left with no inheritance and cannot support himself without his parents. Crumbling and unable to finish finals at Cornell, Jacob takes a chance and hops on The Benzini Brothers traveling train. Still a young adult throughout most of the novel, Jacob easily connects with young readers in search to find out who they are. Lost and lonely aboard the train. Jacob is thrown into a wild assortment of circus performers and workers.

Along the way Jacob takes the role as a protector of many of his friends on the train such as Marlena and her schizophrenic husband August. Within this relationship lies the key conflict in Water for Elephants, along with Jacob’s battle with the harsh reality of loneliness and his constant rebellion against his own good intentions.

Gruen includes an ironic combination of glamour met with the reality of the confusion many of the circus performers and workers live with on the road. Water for Elephants is set in the 1920s during the Great Depression when times and spirits were equally low. The book has a whimsical tone even above the dark conflicting mood of the Great Depression. Jacob and Marlena’s forbidden romance kept my attention throughout the novel as their relationship dangerously progresses. All of Gruen’s characters are uniquely individual but also woven together through their own confusion that led them to Benzini Brothers. Although all of Gruen’s characters are far-fetched, they are relatable to all people beyond their extreme personas.

The book captures the magic and the tragedy of a young boy grown into an old man trying to find out who he is. Using point of view from two of the loneliest times in a man’s life, Gruen creates a heartfelt portrait of Jacob Jankowski and how he came to be. This book is great for all ages, capturing the truth and tragedy from the life of a man. There are definite roadblocks for Jacob and the circus along the way, but Gruen saves the best for last and ends Water for Elephants with a beautiful twist.

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About Sarah C Thomas

  • Poppy

    Absolutely superb review. I’m gonna get a copy as soon as I can … if Half Off Books doesn’t have it your review will motivate me to spring for the full price. Seriously, I have always felt that your direction would be in writing in some form. Gogo and I were recently reminiscing (we talk about you all the time … hope you don’t mind) about your early love for books and reading. We are so proud of you and love you so much.
    Poppy & Gogo
    PS … I’m gonna try to put this on your blug … bolg whatever …but send it the old fashion way just in case.