Book review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

As cinemagoers flock to see Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon in Water for Elephants, why not get a real feel for the story and check out Sara Gruen’s enthralling book on which the film is based.

It’s one of those big entertaining reads that packs in a barrel-load of themes from animals and circuses to love and loss and ageing and remembrance.

The action is set during the Great Depression in America and revolves around trainee vet Jacob Jankowski who hitches a ride on a circus train and finds his life changed in an instant.

But Gruen’s fast-paced and colourful storytelling takes us far beyond the bounds of Jacob’s personal journey and into the gregarious and gritty world of the circus where you can almost smell the animals, feel the tension and see the glitter of the sequins.

Like one of those Big Top acrobats, the pulsating and highly original plot twists and turns its way to a truly thrilling climax which was just tailor-made for the silver screen treatment.


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Gruen used extensive research to create this rip-roaring novel and her cast of vibrant characters are an ideal channel through which to portray all the rich and raw drama of circus life with its own bizarre laws, superstitions and vocabulary.

The story opens as Jacob, now in his nineties, faces up to the final years of his life and desperately tries to hold onto the past and his memories.

His parents were killed in a car accident when he was in his early twenties. He has no inheritance and cannot continue his veterinary studies at Cornell University without the support of his parents.

Grief-stricken and desperate, Jacob takes a chance and hops on the Benzini Brothers travelling circus train where he meets horsewoman Marlena Rosenbluth and her schizophrenic husband August.


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It is his forbidden love for Marlena which creates the key conflict in Water for Elephants, along with his battle with the harsh reality of loneliness and his constant rebellion against his own good intentions.

As the circus tours the country, there is much buying and selling, and wheeling and dealing but when the owners acquire Rosie, an elephant who proves to be stubbornly uncooperative, Jacob and Marlena decide it’s time to take a stand against the countless acts of cruelty.

Water for Elephants is a superb rollercoaster adventure...glitzy, glamorous, moving and surprisingly uplifting.

(Two Roads, paperback, £7.99)