Book Review: Water for Elephants

Let me begin my review of Water for Elephants by saying that I have not seen the movie…yet.  I did this on purpose since it is a wide-known fact that the book is almost always better than the movie.  However, I do think that this novel in particular may be just the type of book that could actually translate well into a movie due to its complex and bustling circus scenes.

The novel begins as the main protagonist, Jacob Jankowski, awaits the arrival of a circus while sitting in a nursing home.  As Jacob sits alone in this unfriendly place, faced with his own mental and physical deterioration, the arrival of the circus brings new light to his fading life.  Through flashbacks, Jacob tells the reader about his own experience with a traveling circus.  His memories begin when he is about to graduate from Cornell University with a doctorate in veterinary medicine.  But just as he is about to take his final exams, both of his parents are killed in an accident.  Jacob finds that his father’s veterinary practice, which he was slated to take over upon graduation, is all but bankrupt.  With his parents’ home in foreclosure, no business to take over and all of his plans shattered Jacob decides to walk to Albany for work.  While walking along the train tracks he jumps a moving train to give his tired feet a rest.  It is not until later that he realizes that the train belongs to a traveling circus—the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.  Jacob happens to land a job with the circus and eventually winds up as the shows veterinarian.  Jacob is exposed to many things he had never experienced before.

The setting of the novel is fascinating and from what I have read, Gruen did a lot of research on depression-era circuses.  This Depression-era circus is a brutal and unforgiving lifestyle—laws that apply in the real world do not apply in this circus community.  However, the circus tends to overwhelm the simple characters of Jacob and Marlena.  Their straightforward relationship, based on stereotypical “I don’t even know you but I love you with all my heart” kind of love, is often overshadowed by the brutality, busyness and bustling setting.  I often found myself doubting the central story-line of Jacob and Marlena’s love.  While sitting all along in a nursing home, aside from the flashbacks, Jacob barely mentions Marlena.  For me, this made the central story fall apart and whatever flashbacks he has of her just don’t resonate with the reader as much as the other side stories.

Not only does the circus itself overshadow the main characters, but secondary characters do as well.  August, Marlena’s charismatic and abusive husband, becomes far more interesting for the reader.  Whereas I felt nothing towards the main characters (besides pity for their childlike simplicity), I found myself hating August. Instead of centering the novel around two lovers, August would have made a far more interesting and complex protagonist.  Even Camel, the alcoholic nice-guy and Rosie, the Polish elephant, are far more captivating than Jacob and Marlena.

I should also let my readers know that I am not the type to read mushy love stories—in fact, my feelings towards love stories borders on abhorrence.  However, the supporting characters and the setting make up for what the love story sorely lacks.

Water for Elephants at Amazon!

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Maureen Harding is a graduate of Temple University.  She lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.  She can be contacted by email at

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