Book Review of "Water for Elephants"

A Story of Love, Growing Old, and, Most of All, Circus

Water for Elephants Book Review - Elephant with 2 Girls

Although I'd seen the movie before reading book and knew what to expect, this book by Sara Gruen had me enthralled almost instantly. I never wanted to put it down, even skipping meals and missing out on sleep just to read it!

Based partially on pure imagination and partially on real stories and anecdotes, this fictional book gives a unique perspective of the traveling circus days through the eyes of one young boy.

Love, anger, pain, death, animal cruelty, friendship, loyalty, and growing old are all recurring themes in the book that weave and mesh together in wonderful ways.

Photo Credit: Poster available for purchase on Zazzle

Life on a Traveling Circus Show

Georges Seurat - Der Zirkus - Circus Poster The story starts with the main character, Jacob Jankowski, sitting under the food tent of a circus with music from the Big Top playing in the background. He's having a strange conversation with a fellow circus workman, strange because, as the reader, we are given no context. Suddenly things take a turn for the worse, and Jacob sprints to the menagerie tent to find that all the wild animals are running loose.

Once that whole scene plays out, it cuts to Jacob sitting in his wheelchair in a nursing home. It was all just a memory.

Throughout the book, we're taken back and forth between the present and the past. Once a working circus man, Jacob now struggles just to remember the names of the nurses who care for him. This bothers him, and the insight into the thoughts of the elderly             Circus Poster by MyOtherPlanet         are saddening and all too real.

“I used to think I preferred getting old to the alternative, but now I'm not sure. Sometimes the monotony of bingo and sing-alongs and ancient dusty people parked in the hallway in wheelchairs makes me long for death. Particularly when I remember that I'm one of the ancient dusty people, filed away like some worthless tchotchke.”

The Circus Girl Posters

As sad as the parts portraying old age may be, the parts about the circus and what led up to it are equally thrilling, exciting, and terrifying all at once. Jacob recounts everything that happened starting from his days at Cornell where he studied to be a vet. Taking into account the fact that this book was based partially on real events, books, interviews, and research on what it was really like to work on a traveling circus, the hardships experienced by both performers and workmen is utterly shocking. Violence, injury, sickness, and death were aplenty and expected in the world of railroads, sawdust, elephants, and sequins. Wild animals, angry townspeople, and lack of money were common problems. That's not to say it didn't have its high points though, and those are included, but to a lesser extent. Parties, alcohol, loving primates, human-like elephants,                     Circus Girl Poster           and unbreakable friendships are all in there. Everything               by scenesfromthepast             is not always what it seems though, including the sparkling                                                         Big Top, and that's something our protagonist learns.

“And you want to know what Uncle Al did when the hippo died? He swapped out her water for formaldehyde and kept on showing her. For two weeks, we traveled with a pickled hippo. The whole thing's illusion, Jacob, and there's nothing wrong with that.”

Sporting Ladies (or Circus Lover) by James Tissot Posters

No review of this book would be complete though without mentioning love. The theme of love permeates the story more deeply than anything else because it permeates Jacob's mind, body, and soul. The way the author portrays love--the words she uses, the style she writes with--gives it this whole new life. She writes about it in a way that you can't separate the story itself from the idea of love, and you can feel it yourself. In essence, it's about a love bigger than the circus itself. It's a forbidden one though with unimaginable consequences, full of obstacles and twists and turns, as you'll see throughout the novel. Will it work out in the end? You'll have to read the book yourself to find that out. It's about more than just human love though. It's also about love for animals, a love for life, and a love for the circus.                                                                                                                                                               Circus Poster by MasterpieceCafe

"I want to absorb her and walk around for the rest of my days with her encased in my skin. I lie motionless, savoring the feeling of her body against mine. I'm afraid to breathe in case I break the spell.”

Read more quotes from Water for Elephants on

Purchase the Book

Water for Elephants: A Novel
Sara Gruen $9.60

The book is available in hardcover, paperback, audiobook, and Kindle book. If you have an Amazon Prime membership, you can even rent it for free. All versions are available through the link here.

Purchase the Movie

Water for Elephants
Fox $4.99

Whether you've read the book or not, you can still watch the movie. The lead roles are played by Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon, and they play them beautifully.  Although certain plot points are a little different, it's still a great film. It's available on DVD or Blu-ray, both through the link here.

Want More Circus Reads?

Sawdust and Spangles: Stories and Secrets of the Circus

If you want another fantastic traveling circus book, you have to read Sawdust and Spangles: Stories and Secrets of the Circus by W.C. Coup. The book is essentially an autobiography, but it's much more than just that. Coup was the first man to transport the circus by railroad, among other things. His true, nonfictional anecdotes and stories are unbelievable. It doesn't have a straight plot like Water for Elephants, but it's all real events, and it's all fascinating.

For a full review of Sawdust and Spangles, click here.

Purchase Circus Posters and Products

Zazzle has a large selection of circus products including posters, plates, phone covers, office supplies, and more. Check out some of the posters available below.

Circus Elephant Posters     Elephants in the parking lot posters       Vintage Circus Girl and Horse Print

Comments or Questions?


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1165 forum posts
Ladymermaid on said:
Your book review of Water for Elephants is amazing. I loved your quotes and your interpretation of the story line. It is easy to see that this review was a labor of love. Wonderful!
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kburns421 on said:
Thank you! I do enjoy writing reviews when I love the book. I'm glad you enjoyed it.
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beckyf on said:
Excellent review. Makes me want to read the book.

The last book I read that I couldn't put down was "The Help".

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