Book: Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Reviewed by Lori Twichell
Genre: historical, romance
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Date: May 1, 2007
Jacob Jankowski is a grumpy old man with more than a lifetime’s share of adventures. At the ripe old age of 90 (or is it 93? He can never remember for sure.) he’s seen more than the average person will ever experience in their lives and most of it happened in just a short few years. Jacob used to work the circus during the great depression and it changed everything about his life.

When his parents were both killed in a car accident shortly before his graduation from veterinary school, it exploded everything that he’d hoped to accomplish with his future. The discovery that they had no money and had mortgaged everything they own to keep him in the ivy league school, he had no idea what should happen next. So he began to walk. Literally. And he didn’t stop until his feet hurt so badly he wouldn’t be able to go on. That’s when the train came along and Jacob made a decision that would put him on an entirely new path that would not only change his life, but the lives of all the people around him. He joined the circus.

This brings Jacob, the Ivy League educated veterinarian, into contact with an entirely new set of people that he never realized existed. While he attempted to learn the secret language of the circus and survive from moment to moment, Jacob’s world spun upside down, sideways and back again before settling with his sights on Marlena, the beautiful wife of the animal trainer, August.

And then there’s Rosie. Rosie rattles Jacob’s very existence and shatters everything that he’s understood up until this point. Because of the bond forged between Rosie and Jacob, he finally knows what it means to be a veterinarian and he stops simply handling day to day tasks like feeding and watering as he begins to truly care for the animals on his watch. You see Rosie is a bull elephant. She is a gorgeous, headstrong, playful and excessively smart bull elephant.

With Jacob’s help, an act is created with Marlena and Rosie but not without a lot of heartache and agony along the way. Injuries. Trauma. Disaster. All of these seem to follow this circus and Jacob’s life, no matter where he goes.

I loved this book. These stories. The characters. They were gorgeous, heartrending, beautiful and stunning in their magnitude. Gruen pulls no punches about how difficult life is at this time while at the same time, she crafts a nearly magical aura around the circus that has made me look at them differently today. I would recommend this book to any adult that I know. I stress the word adult because as I mentioned, Gruen pulls no punches. This means gritty talk about sex, violence, horrifying situations…she doesn’t coat any of it in cotton candy sweetness or hide it behind beautiful pink sequins. Gruen’s stories are as tough to read as they are amazing and rich.

My heart for this book is divided. As much as I loved it, I fear for the parents or teenagers who will pick it up based solely on Robert Pattinson’s involvement in the film. That’s the reason I felt it was important to cover it here, at Radiant Lit. I know that there are millions of Twi-hard teenagers and parents who love everything about Twilight. Pattinson’s casting in this film will certainly bring many of those parents and teens to this story. But it needs to be said, this is NOT a young adult book. It’s not intended for teenage audiences and it’s very much not as ‘clean’ as the Twilight Saga was. (I know – it’s a vampire book and all that, but a lot of parents felt that it was good for their kids to read because it had glossed over violence, no sex and no foul language.) This book is NOT that way and it bears repeating, if you’re looking for a Twilight-esque story that you can share with your kids, this one isn’t it.

I loved this book. The story really stuck with me and the writing was amazing. But it needs to be read with caution and understanding. It is not intended for teenagers. It never was. And though I haven’t seen the film, I pray that parents are prepared and understand what they are walking into if they go. I’m surprised it’s rated PG-13. The book was definitely an R. And even if they water it down a bit, the subject matter is still going to be heavy.

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