Water for Elephants – Sara Gruen

Posted 21 February, 2008 by Trish in Reading Nook, Review / 19 Comments


Title: Water for Elephants
Author: Sara Gruen
Date Finished: February 19, 2008
Yearly Count: 9
Pages: 331
Rating: 3/5

I really really wanted to like this one, especially because its the first time my sister and I read the same book at the same time. She picked it out and urged me to move it up on my reading list. So, I feel awful that she loved it and I didn’t–especially because she enjoyed it for the same reasons that I didnt–mostly the writing.

Water for Elephants is the story of an elderly man, Jacob, who reflects upon his time as the animal vet at a struggling circus during the depression era. He joins the circus after a disasterous moment in his personal life when he has nowhere else to turn. He is taken under the wing of several people in the circus, including August who is the animal handler and his wife Marlena who performs with the animals. As the prologue details, the story is about a murder that still haunts Jacob–a murder that he has never discussed with anyone.

The prologue certainly gained my attention, but unfortunately my attention began to wane quickly thereafter. The story was fine, but it wasn’t gripping or riveting or compelling–any of the adjectives that have been used to describe the book. Everything juicy was in the first 5 pages of the book–which also meant that the reader knows what is going to happen at the end.

Basically the novel was utterly anticlimatic. I didn’t feel that the characters were well developed–many of the supporting characters blended together–and the writing was sparse and bland. Urg, I hate writing stuff like this about a book!! After finishing the book, I read some of the author’s interview in the back of the book and noticed that she has done a lot of technical writing, and it fit with her style. I expect writing to be rich (not over the top!), but even the dialogue (of which there is a lot) was without feeling and predictable.

Would I recommend it? It’s a pleasant enough story, certainly very easy to read, but there’s not a whole lot there. But I didn’t dislike it–just didn’t love it. The pictures are fabulous and I enjoyed reading about the circus, especially in the 1930s when times were tough, people got thrown off the train, the workers went weeks without pay, and prohibition and bootleg whiskey were in full swing. And who could forget Rosie, the mysterious and loveable elephant. Pick it up if you’re looking for something light. And after browsing Amazon reviews, I’m definitely in the minority with this one.

19 Responses to “Water for Elephants – Sara Gruen”

  1. Joy

    Oh Trish! I loved this book! I’m bummed that you didn’t, but that’s how it goes sometimes. I hope your next one is a winner. :)

  2. verbatim

    Glad to find I’m not the only one who was disappointed in this book. As you point out, it’s flat on two major levels: writing style and plot. The characters were two-dimensional; I never figured out why Marlene was worth all the trouble. Also, my dad was a vet and I found the anthropomorphism silly and likely something a real vet would not engage in.

  3. I think this is one of those love it or hate it books – I enjoyed it very much, but my Dad felt the whole older Jacob in the nursing home to be depressing!

  4. *Joy – Oh I know! I am so disappointed that I didn’t get swept up like everyone else; I felt that way about Secret Life of Bees as well–just didn’t get what all the hype was about. I do, however, think Water for Elephants would have been a great one to listen to! (I’m struggling with my Eragon audiobook)

    *Verbatim – I didn’t think Marlena was all that great either. It’s too bad because I think the story could have had a lot of potential. The anthropomorphism didn’t bother me quite so much–and I thought Bobo was kinda cute! Ha!

    *Stephanie – I’ve heard very little criticism about this one, which surprised me. But I’m so glad others enjoy it! Older Jacob was depressing, but unlike *some* criticism I did read, I kinda liked the old guy. :)

  5. verbatim

    Actually, the part I enjoyed the most and thought was best fleshed out was the nursing home part. I thought that perspective was convincing and interesting. Love the scene where she describes the elderly Jacob, being fed nothing but mush in the old folks home, longing for a nice crisp apple!

  6. I’ve really got to read this book. I’ve been wanting to for a while now, and keep seeing mixed reviews. Not sure what I’m going to think of it! I like reading a different opinion than all the raves.

  7. If I ever get back on track with my reading challenges, I do hope to read this one this year. I’ve heard such great reviews. It’s kind of refreshing to read a review that, while still somewhat favorable, isn’t glowing.

  8. *Verbatim – I agree with you–the only parts about “older Jacob” that didn’t work as well for me was when all of a sudden Rosemary made her announcement about leaving. For me there wasn’t enough lead-up.

    *Jeane – I, too, like reading different reviews (instead of only the glowing ones). Actually, when I’m on Amazon looking at reviews, I generally only look at the negative ones. Not really sure why! I hope you like this one…my sister loved it!

    *Literary Feline – This was a good book, but I didn’t think it was fantastic. I do hope you like it! (This would have been a good one for the What’s In a Name challenge).

  9. I have heard such good things about this book. I’m actually kind of glad not everyone LOVES it!! I have it hear on a shelf somewhere. One of these days, I’ll get around to it!!

  10. *Stephanie – well…I hope you enjoy it! :) It’s a pretty light read, which is always a good thing during a busy schedule. And it was a fun read, it just didn’t grab me like I hoped it would. Of course, it grabbed me more than the one I’m reading now! I’m struggling through Left Hand of Darkness–science fiction isn’t a genre that I do a lot of reading in.

  11. I think this is the first review I see that doesn’t give this book a 5/5! But people are different, so things like that are going to happen all the time. I’d like to read it myself some day, but I can’t say I’m in a rush.

  12. I rated this book 4.5 out of 5. I thought the ending was one of the best parts. And I enjoyed the look into 1930’s circus life. But it’s not a book I feel I’ll ever read again.

  13. I read this book a few months ago and was actually glad that I borrowed it from the library because I don’t want to add it to my collection. The story was great, I was fascinated. I wanted to know how it all ended. I enjoyed the circus life. But overall, the book was to vulgar and had way to much, well, how should I say it . . . nasty sex. I kinda felt guilty for not putting it down earlier. What can I say? I just don’t like reading about those kinds of things.

  14. verbatim

    Trish — Yes, I agree; I had forgotten how the author started to lose me even in the older Jacob portion of the book about the time that Rosemary left. And the deus ex machina ending really didn’t work for me.

  15. Hi, I wanted to say me and my sister did the same thing. Now she’s younger then I am so I get to read YA books. The book she picked out is Archy the Flying Dolphin and the Vampire’s Curse. I really actually liked it. I didn’t think I would but amazingly I sure did.
    Just a word of advise if you’re looking to share a book reading with your sibling, don’t judge a book by it’s cover.

  16. *Nymeth – I’d been interested in this book for a while, but probably would have waited a little before I picked it up if not for my sister.

    *Framed – I’m wondering if I missed something! Everyone loved it–so perhaps I will pick it up again in the future to see if my feelings change. :)

    *Maw Books – Ha ha…there were some pretty graphic scenes, although unfortunately I’ve read worse (don’t pick up any Palahniuk!!).

  17. *Verbatim – The ending was a little too much for me–but I guess, why not? :)

    *Chrissy – My sister is a little younger as well–although we are both in our 20s. I just passed on The Book Thief to her, which is YA. Next time, though I’m going to pick the book! Thanks for coming by.

  18. My favorite part of this book was the end, when he escapes with the circus. It was fanciful, but lovely, that he was no longer condemned to a life of loneliness in the home. I also enjoyed the portrayal of the circus. I felt as if I’d really lived there. But, like you, I didn’t LOVE it.