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on 26 November 2008
Quite simply Water for Elephants is an exceptional read and one that any reader should not miss out on. Briefly the novel is about a circus struggling to survive the Depression-era years in America, or more specifically circus life from the perspective of an ad hoc `vetinarian' - Jacob Jankowski, who jumped on the Benzini Brothers circus train by chance, one evening.

The action in Water for Elephants is fast-paced; more than sufficient to keep the reader glued to the pages. `Pit stops' to the action comes in the form of the story reverting back to the nursing home of the present-day, where Jacob is finding his aged infirmity almost intolerable. These respites back to present-day are brief though, and inevitably the narrative shoots back quickly to Jacob's circus days where the action regains its breakneck speed.

Gruen has really done her `homework' while researching for this novel. She's created a circus world that's wholly believable; one that you feel right in the midst of (especially when she intersperses the chapters with contemporary circus photos). Gruen tells us in the `author's note' at the back of the novel that she had researched extensively for Water for Elephants and it shows! So much so that you can almost smell the menagerie, and the sawdust of the circus ring.

What really makes Water for Elephants special for me though (aside from the great storyline) is the characters. Gruen has done a remarkable job of creating some truly colourful and memorable people in the pages of her novel. Uncle Al (the circus boss) and August (the animal trainer) are characters you're going to love to hate. Marlena, Kinko the Clown aka Walter, and Camel are character's you're just going to love. You're going to love the chief protagonist Jacob Jankowski too. Personally I found him more endearing in his role as the `present day' Nonagenarian, but his struggle to fit into circus life, gain acceptance from his peers and deal with the urges of his love interest, make him a hugely engaging character.

In summing up I'd say that that Water for Elephants is one of these rare novels that will both thrill you and shock you at the same time. I really want to tell you everything about the story because it's so good, but also I don't want to tell you anything, because it will spoil the thrilling `ride' you're going to find yourself on when you read this novel. Sufficed to say that the story grips and twists almost ceaselessly on its way towards a quite thrilling climax. Miss this at your own peril!

Note: I should probably point out that the novel does contain some sexual content which could be considered for the more mature audience, so I probably wouldn't recommend this to anyone under 15. On the other hand I may just be being a little prudish, so perhaps you may want to check out the mature content yourself before passing the book on to any juniors (chap 3. pp.44-47, chap 8 p.97 and chap 10 pp.133-135 contain the `offending' material).
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VINE VOICEon 19 January 2007
Unlike the previous reviewer, I was truly 'swept away' by this book. It was so full of fascinating insights, wonderful (though not always lovable) characters and a story line that I couldn't put down. I loved the fact that all the anecdotes were taken from old circus history and I'd never heard of the great circus trains of mid 1900's America. As a bonus Ms Gruen has included some superb photos from circus archives that really complement the narrative.

Jacob Jancowski is studying for his final exams in veterinary medicine when the death of his parents leaves him in dire straits, both mentally and financially. In his confusion and despair he finds himself wandering, and before he comes to his senses he's jumped a train and entered a new life. It's a life full of highs and lows, a fast learning curve for a fresh faced lad from an Ivy League University.

Jacob, however, finds his niche and so unravels a wonderful story of an unknown time in a traveling circus.

Alongside this runs the current day Jacob, an old man in a nursing home, waiting out the end of his days, when the circus comes to town....

I loved the way the two stories were woven together at the end of the book, but I'm not going to give anything away. You'll have to read it!

My book of the year this year was Joanne Harris's "Gentlemen and Players", but at the last minute I think this book has pipped her to the post!
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This is an easy, entertaining read, but is fundamentally little more than throwaway fluff, enjoyable but instantly forgettable. The circus in 1930s America is all dazzle and sequins on the surface but hides a rather dreary back-stage life full of 'freaks' (the 'dwarf', the 'fat lady') and partially-abused animals. Into this Gruen inserts a rather well-worn love triangle: innocent Jacob, radiant unhappy Marlena, and her charming-but-brutal husband August.

This is cute and rather sentimental, the kind of book where people seriously say 'I think I loved you from the first moment I saw you'. I guess I expected something more atmospheric (this could be pretty much have been set anywhere, at other times than the 30s - a brief excursion to a speak-easy and laying off workers really isn't enough to ground the period), and a more surprising or engaging plot.

Ideal for when you need something relaxing, non-taxing, and fun.
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on 5 April 2011
Water for Elephants: A Novel

I brought this as I thought it may be nice to read before the film comes out...I honestly was mainly interested in the film for Rob Pattinson but I must say I am glad I have read it as it is a excellent book and I didn't put it down so I finished it in a day and half and was gutted when it ended.... It is fantastically well written and I am now excited to see the big screen adaption as I think it will be excellent and no longer just for my R Patz fill.

Really is worth the read.
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on 29 January 2009
The most poignant and amusing part of this book about an old man in a nursing home reminiscing about his youth working as a vet in a travelling circus, are the sections describing his feelings about the way he is treated by the staff in the home. The recollections of circus life include some good historical detail based on substantial research by the author. However, some parts of the story seem unlikely at best and often unbelievable. The ending is rather too good to be true! I chose this title for our book club and most found it an entertaining, easy read.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 20 February 2014
A light read combining a bit of 1930s history, some information about circuses and animal cruelty and a romantic love story. Young Jacob Jankowski is completing his final year of veterinary science at Cornell University when his parents die in a road accident, leaving him penniless. Due to the Great Depression, there is very little work about, and in despair Jacob drops out of university and runs away to join a struggling circus, where his skills as a vet are much needed. Soon he's fallen passionately for Marlena, a champion rider and the wife of the unstable ring master, August, which causes him no end of problems, even when it becomes clear that Marlena is desperately unhappy in her marriage and wants Jacob too. Jacob and Marlena struggle with their passion as they travel across America; while this is going on, Jacob also befriends the circus clown, Walter (a man with a rather unusual selection of reading), tries to look after Camel, an old hobo suffering from 'Jamaican ginger' alcohol poisoning, and forms a close bond with the circus's naughty elephant, Rosie. But all these relationships are thrown into jeopardy when August begins to suspect what's happened to Jacob and Marlena - in this battle of wills, who will be the winner?

I bought this book because of my love of animals, and was rather disappointed that (apart from a couple of scenes with the big cats and the horses, and the regular presence of the rather coyly-depicted Rosie) they didn't feature more. When Gruen does talk about animals, her love of them shines out, making the book rather interesting. The period details are also quite interesting, though I agree with a couple of other reviewers that there's little real sense for long stretches of us being in the 1930s. Otherwise, I found the book rather bland, despite a few dramatic scenes, which I imagine came across well on the film version. The characters were all very one-dimensional: the old alcoholic, the bullying circus-owner, the tyrannical ringmaster, the sweet young wife (how many middle-class girls in 1930s America really did run away to join the circus?) and the earnest, naive young Jacob, who seemed rather too innocent and frankly a bit goofy for a third-year student from Cornell. The mixture of slightly cliched romance and scenes with misbehaving animals (particularly the one that opens the book, when the animals escape) seemed to have been prepared with a filmscript in mind - and I'm not surprised the novel later became a Hollywood film. I found the scenes with old Jacob rather depressing (all they told me was that growing old is something to be feared) and surely a vet for a top zoo would have been able to save enough money to be cared for at home rather than going into residential care? And the love story, though sweet, never really moved me as Marlena was so thinly depicted as a person.

This is entertaining down-time reading if you are very tired, and Gruen does deserve praise for choosing an interesting subject (a circus) but I found the novel in the end rather too cliched. It was apparently written in a hurry, and I have to say it felt like it.
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VINE VOICEon 17 April 2007
Water for Elephants is primarily a romance set in a travelling circus in the 1930s, but we do also see the main character Jacob Janowski as he is in old age in an old folks Home.

The novel was obvoiusly well researached, many of the events in the novel are based on real happenings, and for this reason it was very enjoyable. I learned about 'red-lighting' and the etiquette of the time surrounding performers fratenising with circus hands!

I did have some difficulty with the book being written as a first person narration. I think that Gruen gave herself unnecessary problems writing in this way, with Jacob witnessing conversations that it was unlikely he would have been involved in and making observations that seemed a little unlikely with what we knew about his character and experience. However this is a minor critisism.

I loved Rosie the elephant and Queenie the terrier, but animal lovers should be warned there is some pretty nasty animal cruelty in the book. It's well written but a little difficult to stomach.

All in all, a great book with a satisfying conclusion to both the young and the old Jacob storylines. I have deducted one star only because although I enjoyed the book, I wasn't really swept away.

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on 24 May 2011
This is definitely one of my favourite reads of the year so far, and I can't believe it has taken me this long to get around to reading it!
I didn't think I would really enjoy a novel about the circus, but after a friend recommended it to me, and after reading so many good reviews, I decided to give it a go. I am so glad that I did. It was interesting, exciting and moving.
I particularly enjoyed the way the chapters changed between the present and the past with the circus.
Absolutely brilliant. A 5 star rating, well-deserved!
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on 23 June 2011
Can't recommend this book highly enough. It's a gripping story that is truly unputdownable. Peopled with a strange mix of characters the story slips easily between the past and present. The story unfolds to describe an unusual coterie of companions in a harsh economic vista, how the circumstances they must endure shapes and toughens them as they struggle to survive, physically and mentally. The stark poverty of the early nineteen hundreds is interspersed with details of the emotional deprivation the main character Jacob currently experiences in a nursing home. Yet in both settings a light is shone on acts of kindness that define our humanity and reinforce the fragile dignity of those who are almost overwhelmed by their plights.The extensive research undertaken adds a social history dimension to the story that enhances its value and impact. This is easily one of the best books I've ever read, get it and enjoy.
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on 23 November 2009
This book has lots to offer, all the life and colour of the circus in fact. The setting was atmospheric and colourful, the cast of characters well drawn (but slightly clichéd) and the plot engaging. I challenge you not to fall in love with Rosie the elephant.

Gruen doesn't shy away from the darker side of circus life either, and it's within this darker underbelly that most of the action takes place (including scenes of animal cruelty so be warned). The plot mostly centres on a romance, but there is also the back drop of the depression, the ruthlessly run circus business, and the main protagonists struggle to belong, form relationships, and find a new family within the circus - all the while trying to stay true to his beliefs.

I liked the way it was constructed, jumping from elderly Jacob coping with the effects of aging in the nursing home, and then back to his time in the circus. The nursing home scenes are some of the best in the book for me: sensitive, charming and sad.

My only criticisms would be that some of the characters could have been developed a little bit more, some didn't seem to make it beyond caricature status. The writing style also didn't offer as much suspense as it should have because it bordered on clichéd and obvious for the most part. Criticism aside I still enjoyed this book.

I have given this book four stars because although I loved it, for me it didn't leave that lasting impression that I need to give five stars.

I would recommend this book.
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