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4.4 out of 5 stars
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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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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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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 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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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 23 November 2007
While many have taken to WATER FOR ELEPHANTS because of the immense publicity it has received, I shied away. Now, this, along with the books KITE RUNNER and BARK OF THE DOGOWOD is one of my all-time favorites. I particularly like the beginning. In invite you to find the excerpt of the way this books starts, either here or on another site, and read it for yourself. It starts rolling right from the beginning. And it's not always pretty but it's got to be the most riveting story I've come across since KITE RUNNER.
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I have to say this is not the kind of book I would usually pick up for myself - it mostly sounded like a romance, and that's just not my kind of thing. Stacie picked it for me for our Random Reads feature - and that's why I love doing this feature, so I can try things out of my comfort zone.

I tried to go in with an open mind, but my head just kept providing images of the film with Twilight guy and Bridget Jones (I've not watched it, and I don't think I will after reading the book).

There were two things that I really liked about this book. One was the beginning, and how it influenced the way I read the book and thought about the characters. I can't say too much without spoiling it, but it was very clever.

I also really liked the bits in between the main storyline, where we see Jacob as an old man in a nursing home. This is just a personal point for me, but I found it really sad. I have a grandmother who livs with me and a nan who lives in a home and they both have varying stages of dementia. This book let me imagine things from their point of view, getting frustrated when you forget things you know you should remember, getting confused over time and over your words. It was a bit painful to read to be honest, but in a way I could appreciate.

I think the main downfall for me on this book was that I just didn't feel the connection between the main couple (Jacob and Marlene). It was a bit insta-love for me: they both just saw each other and fell in love and I don't buy it. Even when they were together, I just didn't see it, and as a lot of their actions - towards the end especially - revolved around that love for each other, it just didn't make sense to me.

Marlene was also a disappointment to me. The other characters in the book felt so well rounded and I completely believed in them, but she felt a little hollow to me. It felt like she was just there for Jacob to fall in love with - I didn't get much character from her. A big bugbear (is that really a saying?! It looks weird...) was the fact that the two bits where she spilled her heart out and talked about her past and relationship problems, were narrated by Jacob, rather than us hearing it from her, which spoke volumes to me.

I think her flaws were more obvious because Jacob was such a brilliant character. Again, I loved him as the old man, where he was witty and grouchy and loveable in equal measures.

Overall, this isn't really my kind of read, but I can see why others like it. I didn't hate it by any means, but I also probably won't read it again.
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VINE VOICEon 26 July 2007
I picked this book up because I hadn't heard of it before and was sick of seeing the same old chick lit / trash on the shelves week after week and wanted something totally different. I couldn't have made a better decision, choosing this book; it really is wonderful.

This is a beautifully written, well researched, off-beat love story about a young man called Jacob who (having been suddenly orphaned at the age of 22 while at university and in the age of the depression in America) finds himself, quite unexpectidley, working for a circus. Here we are treated to a feast of colourful (many rather unsavoury) characters (with dwarfes, bearded ladies and a whole host of animals). This is a love story not only between Jacob and Marlena (a married woman whom he loves from afar) but also between Jacob and his animals, imparticular an elephant named Rosie whom I also fell in love with.

The story flits between Jacob as an old man in a nursing home (where a circus comes to town which brings back all his memories) and Jacob in the 1930's during his circus years. This is a wonderfully written, engrosing, captivating novel and I felt lost when I had finished it; I truly had wothdrawal symptoms.

I highly recommend this book and I hope you enjoy as much as I did.
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on 11 September 2011
Depressing and boring.
If I wanted to read about old men's winkies...well, I don't.
I found this book deeply inpenetrable and despite forcing myself to read on, I kept asking myself "Why"? Sadly, the answer that came back was "Because so many people rave about it."
Well, I'm sorry for being a cultural heathen but I found nothing to recommend in this book and cant understand all the fuss.
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