Book Review: Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants
Read By: David LeDoux, John Randolph Jones
Published By: Algonquin Books
Published By: HighBridge Audio (audio)
Publication Date: May 2006
Page Count: 350
Source: Purchased by Reviewer
Audience/Format: Historical Fiction/Audiobook

A friend I recommend this book to a few months ago called it "life changing" -- and I absolutely agree with her. I know sometimes a book gets a bunch of hype and I'm guilty of thinking that most of the time that hype is unjustified. But this book isn't as good as you've heard, IT'S BETTER. The story deals with love, family (both blood and found), ethics, character, violence (people and animals, fair warning that there are some difficult to stomach scenes), marriage, and honor. And that's just your basic plot summary.

Water for Elephants follows the life of (90 or 93 year old, he can't remember) Jacob Jankowski and is told in a series of memories as he reflects on his extraordinary life. The story starts with Jacob preparing for his final exams at Cornell University, the last exams he will take before he graduates with his veterinary degree, when he finds out his parents have been in a fatal car accident. Distraught and penniless, Jacob leaves Ithica just before his graduation, jumping a train in the middle of the night that turns out to belong to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Once he is discovered, Jacob is allowed to stay and begins working blue collar, farm hand type jobs to earn his keep. Eventually his veterinary training surfaces, he becomes the circus vet, and immediately moves up in the circus social hierarchy. Then the plot really takes off.

But, as good as the plot is, this is both a character and plot driven novel -- and the readers for the audiobook do an A-MAZING job with the character part. In reviews I rarely talk up the audiobook part of my reading experience, but I really do think the production of the audiobook added to my enjoyment of the novel. As I said earlier, the book is told in a series of memories, so the audiobook has two reader with one for Young Jacob and one for Old Jacob. And you fall in love with both of them, though Jacob isn't the only character you fall in love with. 

August the animal trainer is incredibly complex, equal parts childish and awful; I hated myself for feeling any kind of sympathy for him, but I did. Then there is Uncle Al, the owner of the circus, who is as magnetic as he is despicable (him, I never felt sorry for, not even once). Even Marlena, Jacob's love interest who is probably my least favorite character, is still someone you want good things for. But my absolute favorite character was Camel, the old, drunk, and lame circus worker who is the soul of the story and first befriends Jacob when he jumps the train. Even Rosie the elephant becomes a friend because she is written so well.

Sara Gruen has shared in interviews that the story in Water for Elephants follows the story of Jacob in the Bible. Admittedly, I'm no biblical scholar, but I do think that this story is one of biblical proportions. It's grand. It's epic. And it's wonderfully engrossing. If this anecdote tells you anything, I started reading this right before I had emergency surgery and I made my boyfriend leave the hospital to go home and get the audiobook and a CD player for me to listen to it in the hospital. Even heavily sedated and in extreme pain, I couldn't bring myself to leave these characters for more than a day.

Last Word: An epic story of love, family, and honor that will leave you thinking about it and its characters for weeks, months, and likely years to come. It does have a few scenes that are mature in nature, but I find it resonates with mature HS students just as much as it does with adults. 

Summary via Goodreads

Washington Post: "You'll get lost in the tatty glamour of Gruen's meticulously researched world, from spangled equestrian pageantry and the sleazy side show to an ill-fated night at a Chicago speak-easy." New York Times Book Review: "[An] arresting new novel... With a showman's expert timing, [Gruen] saves a terrific revelation for the final pages, transforming a glimpse of Americana into an enchanting escapist fairy tale." Parade: "Gritty, sensual and charged with dark secrets involving love, murder and a majestic, mute heroine."


  1. Oh, I absolutely loved this book. And I just wanted to add my two cents about the audio version. This is one of those books that I almost think it's ESSENTIAL to listen to the audio. Of course, I'm sure it isn't, but I wish everyone would give the audio a try. It really adds to the book -- like you said. Thanks for the reminder. I love reading reviews of books I loved long ago. I get warm fuzzies (and of course I want to read it again!)

    1. Annette - I couldn't agree more about the audio!!Both readers do SUCH a wonderful job with Old and Young Jacob.

      I tried to read the hard copy I had when I was at the hospital - it seemed so much easier than sending the poor man on a 45 minute drive home - but I MISSED the readers. I kept sitting the book down without enjoying it nearly as much as I did when listening to it.

      I'm such an auditory and visual person - the audiobook for this title is a must for me!

  2. I have yet to read this. Must really check my TBR more often this one is in there somewhere :)

  3. I loved you review! So well written! I agree this is definitely a must read book.

  4. Loved your review! The first time I read "Water for Elephants" was in 2011 and, since then, it became my favorite book ever. Sara Gruen did an amazing job with the characterizing of the characters and also describing the general scenario. While reading this book, I felt like I was litteraly part of a circus of 1930. "Water for Elephants" is a magic book that stays in our minds even after reading its last page. This book is amazing and you did a great job with the book review.

  5. Have heard nothing of praise for this book, and while it certainly sounds justified, I'm so soft hearted regarding animals that I think aspects of the book would upset me :(


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