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Water for Elephants: A Novel Kindle Edition

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Length: 364 pages Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
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Amazon.com Review

Jacob Jankowski says: "I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other." At the beginning of Water for Elephants, he is living out his days in a nursing home, hating every second of it. His life wasn't always like this, however, because Jacob ran away and joined the circus when he was twenty-one. It wasn't a romantic, carefree decision, to be sure. His parents were killed in an auto accident one week before he was to sit for his veterinary medicine exams at Cornell. He buried his parents, learned that they left him nothing because they had mortgaged everything to pay his tuition, returned to school, went to the exams, and didn't write a single word. He walked out without completing the test and wound up on a circus train. The circus he joins, in Depression-era America, is second-rate at best. With Ringling Brothers as the standard, Benzini Brothers is far down the scale and pale by comparison.

Water for Elephants is the story of Jacob's life with this circus. Sara Gruen spares no detail in chronicling the squalid, filthy, brutish circumstances in which he finds himself. The animals are mangy, underfed or fed rotten food, and abused. Jacob, once it becomes known that he has veterinary skills, is put in charge of the "menagerie" and all its ills. Uncle Al, the circus impresario, is a self-serving, venal creep who slaps people around because he can. August, the animal trainer, is a certified paranoid schizophrenic whose occasional flights into madness and brutality often have Jacob as their object. Jacob is the only person in the book who has a handle on a moral compass and as his reward he spends most of the novel beaten, broken, concussed, bleeding, swollen and hungover. He is the self-appointed Protector of the Downtrodden, and... he falls in love with Marlena, crazy August's wife. Not his best idea.

The most interesting aspect of the book is all the circus lore that Gruen has so carefully researched. She has all the right vocabulary: grifters, roustabouts, workers, cooch tent, rubes, First of May, what the band plays when there's trouble, Jamaican ginger paralysis, life on a circus train, set-up and take-down, being run out of town by the "revenooers" or the cops, and losing all your hooch. There is one glorious passage about Marlena and Rosie, the bull elephant, that truly evokes the magic a circus can create. It is easy to see Marlena's and Rosie's pink sequins under the Big Top and to imagine their perfect choreography as they perform unbelievable stunts. The crowd loves it--and so will the reader. The ending is absolutely ludicrous and really quite lovely. --Valerie Ryan

From Publishers Weekly

With its spotlight on elephants, Gruen's romantic page-turner hinges on the human-animal bonds that drove her debut and its sequel (Riding Lessons and Flying Changes)—but without the mass appeal that horses hold. The novel, told in flashback by nonagenarian Jacob Jankowski, recounts the wild and wonderful period he spent with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a traveling circus he joined during the Great Depression. When 23-year-old Jankowski learns that his parents have been killed in a car crash, leaving him penniless, he drops out of Cornell veterinary school and parlays his expertise with animals into a job with the circus, where he cares for a menagerie of exotic creatures[...] He also falls in love with Marlena, one of the show's star performers—a romance complicated by Marlena's husband, the unbalanced, sadistic circus boss who beats both his wife and the animals Jankowski cares for. Despite her often clichéd prose and the predictability of the story's ending, Gruen skillfully humanizes the midgets, drunks, rubes and freaks who populate her book. (May 26)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Product Details

  • File Size: 3038 KB
  • Print Length: 364 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books (May 1, 2007)
  • Publication Date: May 1, 2007
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B003I1WY2A
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,983 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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More About the Author

I am a transplanted Canadian (now also an American citizen) who moved to the States in 1999 for a technical writing job. Two years later I got laid off. Instead of looking for another job, I decided to take a gamble on writing fiction.

I live with my husband, three children, two dogs, four cats, two horses, and a goat in North Carolina.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

1,541 of 1,610 people found the following review helpful By Lisa on May 27, 2006
Format: Hardcover
What a terrific read! Water for Elephants has been lauded as a "great pick for summer", but this book is so much more. It has a depth and a substance to it that you don't usually find in your typical "beach read". It's obvious that the author did her research into the time period (post-Depression America), and the subject matter (traveling circuses). According to the author's note at the end of the book, many of the compelling anecdotes in the story were based upon real events, culled from the diaries and personal histories of old-time circus performers. As a result, Water for Elephants is a novel that boasts the rare combination of being both entertaining and informative.

The main character is a cantankerous, still-sharp 93-year-old man, and his frustration at being trapped in an old man's body is palpable. The story of his incredible life and adventures with the Benzini Brothers circus unfolds in a way that is emotionally wrenching, and yet flashes of good humor pervade throughout. The characters are richly drawn, and even the animals are given complex personalities that make them a pivotal part of the story. There is something in the novel for everyone: it is equal parts adventure, mystery, fictional memoir, love story, and historical account.

I highly recommend this book!
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1,083 of 1,162 people found the following review helpful By Luan Gaines HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 25, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Stripped of everything after his parents' untimely death, twenty-three-year old Jacob Jankowski has failed to sit for his veterinary exams at Cornell, left with no home and no future, the country struggling through the Great Depression, bartering in goods instead of money. Hopping a train that by chance belongs to The Flying Squadron of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, Jacob hires on to care for the menagerie, his training an entre into this bizarre world; but as the novel begins, Jacob is an old man, restricted to an assisted living home, his memories sparked by a nearby visiting circus and a creeping helplessness that assaults his ageing body: "Age is a terrible thief. Just when you think you're getting the hang of it, it knocks your legs out from under you and stoops your back."

The story is related in the somber tones of the Depression, the hardscrabble and often unscrupulous business of a traveling circus and the heartless despots who make their fortunes on the backs of men who must do anything to survive. Star performer Marlena, an equestrian, is sensitive to the needs of her horses, although her mercurial husband, August, the trainer, is obsessively jealous and given to unspeakable cruelties. Uncle Al, Benzini Brothers circus owner-by-default, is a ruthless businessman who cares little for man or beast, engaged in a quest for fame to rival the great Ringling Brothers. With his advanced training in veterinary medicine, Jacob does his best to protect the animals from their harsh existence, especially Rosie, an elephant purchased to replace Marlena's lead horse. Jacob and Rosie share an affinity for one another, the huge creature at times almost human.
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371 of 404 people found the following review helpful By Cynthia K. Robertson TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 18, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Although it is only April, I predict that Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen will be one of the best books I read this year. Gruen has proven to be an amazing storyteller.

Water for Elephants is told in the first person but from two different perspectives--Jacob Jankowski at 23 years of age and again, at 93 years old. Gruen seamlessly weaves the chapters between past and present. Jacob at 23 is finishing up his last semester at Cornell Veterinary School when a family tragedy causes him to flee. He finds himself on a train for the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth in 1931. Needing a vet, the circus hires young Jacob to tend to their menagerie. Jacob at 93 resides in a nursing home where he laments the curses of old age, the passing of his wife, and the waning affection of his family. The arrival of a visiting circus triggers a flashback to his youthful circus experiences.

1931 is a hard time for almost all Americans, and the circus workers are as hard hit as any. Most are one step away from being homeless and jobless. Conditions on the circus train are harsh for most. Many workers go weeks without being paid, and they tend to disappear during the night when times are tough (management has them thrown off the train). The menagerie is often times treated better than the workers. But the circus does provide three meals a day and a place to sleep--even it if might mean a horse blanket on a train bed floor. Jacob discovers very quickly that he's just about the only advocate the animals have and he must battle a ruthless owner (Uncle Al) and a crazy animal trainer (August).

Any circus has more than their fair share of interesting characters, and Gruen's circus is no exception.
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83 of 87 people found the following review helpful By Red Rock Bookworm TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 6, 2007
Format: Paperback
Water for Elephants is told by and about Jacob Jankowski, a cranky but likable 90 year old (or perhaps 93) man who resides in an assisted living center. The story maintains its momentum by alternating between the past and the present as Jacob recalls the circumstances under which he found himself traveling with the Benzini Brothers Circus.

Through Jacob, the author Sara Gruen, presents us with a fascinating history of the American circus as well as a painful look at the time known as "The Great Depression". Gruens storytelling technique is enhanced by the period circus photos (circa 1920-30) that appear at the beginning of each chapter.

The eccentricities of the characters as well as the alarming treatment of both animals and performers propels the story and mezmerizes the reader. The complicated interpersonal relationships of the circus "family" is deftly interwoven with that of the rest home "family".

I was truly seduced by this book. Reading it was an unexpected and astonishing adventure that continued to resonate long after I had read the last page and closed the book.
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Parellels the biblical story of Jacob?
There are anagrams, both exact and phonetic: Catherine Hale=Leah, Marlena L'Arche=Rachel, Alan Bunkel (Uncle Al)=Uncle Laban

There is the flat rock, the dream, the animal husbandry for Uncle Laban, Jacob and Rachel (Marlena) leave with Uncle Al's (Uncle Laban's) best livestock, Jacob must do an... Read More
Jul 8, 2007 by Sarah G |  See all 47 posts
What's the Relevance of the Title?
A favorite pet peeve of retired show folk of a certain age is the claims of other folk of a certain age that they used to carry water for the elephants in exchange for free tickets to the circus. In fact, local kids were put to hard physical use and carried water for the other animals in exchange... Read More
Jul 8, 2007 by Sarah G |  See all 57 posts
August's mental illness
I loved this book but had difficulty w/ August's possible schizophrenia. His symptoms are not consistant w/ someone w/ schizophrenia. More likely someone w/ a personality disorder, or possibly bipolar disorder (manic depression). Someone with schizophrenia would not have waxing and waning ... Read More
Oct 24, 2007 by Lauri Hjelm |  See all 31 posts
Walter
I absolutely agree with you on that. I LOVED Walter. I just finished the book last night, and this morning I can't get past the thought of Walter dying alone. Unable to move. After all he did for everyone else. Not even with Queenie at his side! And he knew better than to help Jacob, that... Read More
Mar 30, 2008 by Treegrl |  See all 13 posts
Clean?
I would not want my 14 year old reading it. Without the graphic sexual references, it would have been a great read for young people.
Sep 28, 2008 by K Jonas |  See all 10 posts
Good cruise novel Be the first to reply
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