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Showing 1-10 of 3,360 reviews(Verified Purchases). See all 7,519 reviews
on September 7, 2016
This is a book where I had actually seen the movie first, which then made me want to read the novel. The circus seems to bring out the optimistic and wide-eyed child in us all, and this story was no different. You come to care about the animal and humans alike in this novel and find yourself wrapped inside their world before you know it. I fairly much inhaled this book over two evenings, and seeing the movie didn't curb my sense of excitement and mystery as I worked through the story. At the end I had the thought, yet again, that we all seemed to be doomed nowadays to reaching our end of life years and being forgotten by our families regardless of how amazing our former selves have lived our lives. This book helps to remind us all that ordinary people have extraordinary tales to tell if we would just bother to slow down and listen.
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on September 9, 2016
Interesting but disturbing at the same time. I can't stand animal cruelty and this was too graphic for me.
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on January 23, 2017
I read this book when it first came out a number of years ago. Then we moved and I had to get rid of extra books, so I gave my copy to the library. This past fall, I was visiting residents in a local nursing home with my therapy dog, Bella, and saw a copy of "At The Water's Edge" sitting on a window sill. I got the book, read it and loved it. Then of course I couldn't remember if I'd read "Water for Elephants" or not, so I took it out of the library. There were scenes I remembered, but it's such a good book, it was wonderful to read it again. The juxtaposition of Jacob as a young man and an old man in a nursing home, the drama of the circus, the characters' relationships with animals, and of course the love story, made it an amazing read.
I've learned a lot from animals my whole life, and having written about my unlikely dog who is now a therapy dog, I've learned to pay attention to what they teach us. Find this book again, and read it. It's one of the best reads out there.
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on August 29, 2015
Water for Elephants is a book that I probably wouldn’t have picked up if I hadn’t seen–and loved–the movie adaptation. I’m certainly glad I did though, because I really enjoyed it, too! For some reason, even though I’d never to go a real circus (I am terrified of clowns), I love reading about them. I guess it’s my way of experiencing them without the fear. But I’d only read about Fantasy circuses before, so it was really fun to read about a real one, especially one that’s trying to make it during the Depression era.

Water for Elephants alternates between the present day, where Jacob is 93 and in an assisted living facility, and the summer he was 23. He’s not happy where he is, because he still feels like a young man inside even though the evidence to the contrary is obvious on the outside. The final straw seems to be when another resident claims to have carried water for elephants during his days at a circus. Jacob knows there’s no such thing, and begins remember his youth and relives those days he spent working as a circus vet, and fell in love with Marlena.

The only thing that bothered me about Water for Elephants was that Marlena really had no personality before she and Jacob begin their affair. It’s almost as if she needed him to bring her out. I do not like this at all! It was also a bit frustrating because he falls in love with this amazing young woman, but we don’t really see her amazingness until later. Maybe I noticed this more because I watched the movie first, and really enjoyed Reese Witherspoon’s portrayal of her. She breathed life into an otherwise flat character.

I definitely enjoyed Water for Elephants. I find the time period fascinating, and loved seeing circus life (and some of the shows). I liked how Jacob was making the best of a bad situation, and tried to help those around him as well. And of course, Rosie! I freaking love that elephant and wish there had been more of her antics!
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VINE VOICEon March 23, 2010
Ninety-year old Jacob lives in a nursing home where he spends most days parked in the hallway, waiting for Sundays when a visitor comes. He's excited because a traveling circus has set up next door and he can't wait to go. He flashes back to his youth during the Depression, when he was penniless and joined a third-rate circus as an almost-qualified vet. There, he fell in love with Marlena, the beautiful star horsewoman. Unfortunately, his boss was her brutish husband.

I absolutely loved this book. It contrasts the misery of being old and helpless with the non-stop action of life "on the show," though that certainly had its share of misery, too. The pathetic circus Jacob joined was full of lively characters, some kindly, others cruel, and Jacob was forced to grow from naive youth to courageous man. There were many pages that reduced me to sobs, especially those detailing the agonizing despair of some nursing home residents and some instances of animal cruelty at the circus.

I would have given this book five stars, but I didn't like that it was written in the first person (which immediately takes away some suspense as to the future of the narrator), and it was written entirely in the present tense which struck me as awkward. The story itself is engaging, exciting, touching, and rewarding. Highly recommended.
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on January 5, 2016
I avoided this novel for a long time because I have never been a fan of the circus (especially because of documented animal abuse and its exploitation of human oddities for amusement and profit.) However, I adore period novels that truly immerse you in another era and I decided to try the book and abandon it if it became too unsettling.

Unfortunately, it did.

Water for Elephants is beautifully written and the author is remarkably gifted at transporting you back in time. She has an inexhaustible imagination and jam packs her story with dozens of quirky and compelling characters who spring off the page with the agility of acrobats. This is not a soporific tale. In addition to all the eccentric characters bounding around the plot of Water For Elephants is as big and blinding as a massive disco ball and about every other chapter bursts like a pinata. Something is always happening: someone is being punched in the nose or high pitched shrieks are coming from the big tent or a mustached villain is hurling insults at some hapless circus employee. This novel is brash and brazen and graphic and I didn't have a problem with most of it. I enjoyed the frenetic pace and the sparkly madness of it all and the tale itself is truly original and engrossing.

My problem with this novel is that it does involve animals that are confined and mistreated and it also discusses the custom of displaying humans with physical deformities as sideshow 'freaks'. I am well aware this could not be avoided considering the subject matter and I'm certain the author wanted to paint a vivid and historically accurate portrait of the circus in the early 20th century. However, she does her job a bit too thouroughly and there were times I had to skip or skim entire paragraphs. I simply couldn't tolerate the highly lurid descriptions of horses throats being sliced open, lit cigarettes being tossed into the beguiling elephant's mouth. or desperate people being gawked at because they were obese or sprouting a parasitic twin from their chest.

That being said, Sara Gruen is an amazingly talented writer and after reading her bio and learning about her small menagerie at home and her penchant for saving orphaned cats I am certain she did not write this book to rejoice in the mistreatment of animals. She also sounds like a kind and compassionate person who definitely wouldn't be eager to view 'freaks' at a circus sideshow. Water For Elephants is a fascinating and dazzling tale but if it makes you uncomfortable to read about animal or human abuse I would probably avoid it.
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VINE VOICEon March 6, 2008
First the title, Water for Elephants is quite interesting. It catches my eye and has been since I saw it on the bookshelf. Finally with a copy of my own, Sara Gruen's writing style is quite detailed and specific but she has abundant of information and allows the reader to understand Jacob Jankowski, the widowed 90 year old man. In writing about the loss of his parents, he writes how he discovered that his parents mortgaged their home to send him to Ivy league college, probably Cornell University. He drops out and finds himself working at the circus by providing water for elephants. We know he was married for 60 years. The sccene in the lawyer's office discovering his parents' lack of estate was heartbreaking and typical depression era story. The fact that the great depression and stock market crash of 1929 is still relevant in today's literature. Sara Gruen makes accountability for explaining the details of Jacob Jankowski's life.
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I almost exclusively read nonfiction, with perhaps one or two novels a year thrown in for a diversion. This book was given to me and came with highest recommendations, so I started reading it on a plane trip. I am normally not especially captivated by fiction, but suffice it to say that I read the book over the course of one day because I enjoyed the characters so much. The book is told in flashbacks by a 93 year old man, and addresses his years as the vet on a circus train. I found the wraparound scenes of Jacob useful for the introduction and the wonderful conclusion, but if there was one thing I would have changed about the story it was the incessant excursions to the present sprinkled throughout the story which really don't advance the plot other than to explain some issues about senior care in an assisted living community.

The book begins with a delightfully deceptive prologue, setting the reader up for a surprise at the climax. I must admit that I had my suspicions about the murder in question, but found the execution to be more skillful than I had imagined. The victim, August, is a megalomaniac with a temper and forms one point in a love triangle with the protagonists, Jacob and Marlena. The circus, run by slimy vermin "Uncle Al" is well fleshed out with interesting characters and terminology that Gruen incorporates flawlessly into the book. I found the character of Walter (Kinko the Clown) to be the perfect complement to play off of Jacob and their relationship was one of the most interesting parts of the novel for me.

Gruen handles difficult situations well, even delving into dreams vividly, as when she relates Jacob's nightmare of struggling to get back on the train while pursued by malevolent animals ("Behind us, a wall of badgers. In front of us, a dozen alligators.") Her turn of phrase and tendency to sly understatement is notable throughout, and adds to the story as much by omission as by overt statements. The pivotal murder is one of the most brilliant ever concocted, and the subtlety of its telling, particularly in contrast to the version in the prologue is exquisite: the wording was changed very slightly to enlighten the reader to a plot twist that may or may not have been expected, but nonetheless was wonderfully executed. The ending of the book was likewise unexpected inasmuch as the reader is so focused on the story of Jacob in the circus, they aren't giving as much consideration to the 93 year old who is actually narrating the book.

As I mentioned before, there is more narration here than is absolutely necessary (but then again I normally read technical nonfiction), and as an animal lover the cruelty to animals is appalling (even if it's fiction, and despite it being historically based) although admittedly necessary to develop the plot. I mention this as the book may not be suitable for some younger readers for this reason. I found Gruen's choice of the name Jacob, and the obvious Biblical references to Jacob found in Genesis compelling and one of the things that separates this book from most contemporary fiction.

Although light reading on one level, this book also deals skillfully with difficult issues, has excellent character development, and a couple of great plot twists. Also included are interviews with the author and a set of book group discussion questions, which were not written by Gruen, and which I found contrived and dull.

"Water For Elephants" did what a good novel is supposed to do: it captivated my interest from start to finish, and I couldn't put it down. I recommend it without reservation for anyone wanting to read a wonderful contemporary novel about true love, murder, and reflection.
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on June 6, 2011
I have not seen the movie and was not sure how I'd like a book about the circus but a lot of people recommended this novel and it got great reviews so I gave it a try. It was beautifully written with vivid imagery. How could you not fall in love with Jacob? How could you not be enterained with the stories about the circus? How could you not be enthralled with Marlena and Jacob's secret love? I really enjoyed reading it, in fact I could not put it down and it only took me a week to read it. I think this is a story anyone could enjoy, and the author did an amazing job with her research about everything from the circus to the prohibition. The parts about the old man got kind of depressing but there was a happy ending for all at the end. Highly recommended. Lovely read.
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on March 25, 2007
Reading a good book is a chance to run off with the circus--to escape into a fun and exciting world totally unlike one's own. This is Gruen's gift to her readers. I got completely absorbed in the double stories of the old man in assisted living and the young man in the circus. By starting her book with the reflections of an old person looking back, this novel reminded me of Evening as well as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. The black-and-white photos add a lot too. The historic photo on page 70 of the so-called gentleman "freak" is shocking, isn't it? A fast-paced enjoyable book.

--Carol Weston, author of Melanie Martin novels for children and teen advice books Girltalk Fourth Edition: All the Stuff Your Sister Never Told You.
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