Water for Elephants: A Novel

Water for Elephants: A Novel

by Sara Gruen

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Over 10,000,000 copies in print worldwide
#1 New York Times Bestseller
A Los Angeles Times Bestseller
A Wall Street Journal Bestseller
A Newsday Favorite Book of 2006
A USA Today Bestseller
A Major Motion Picture starring Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, and Christoph Waltz

Jacob Janowski’s luck had run out--orphaned and penniless, he had no direction until he landed on a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. A veterinary student just shy of a degree, he was put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It was the Great Depression and for Jacob the circus was both his salvation and a living hell. There he met Marlena, the beautiful equestrian star married to August, the charismatic but brutal animal trainer. And he met Rosie, an untrainable elephant who was the great hope for this third-rate traveling show. The bond that grew among this group of misfits was one of love and trust, and ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781565125858
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date: 05/01/2007
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 28,680
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Sara Gruen is the #1 New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of At the Water’s Edge,Water for Elephants, Ape House, Riding Lessons, and Flying Changes. Her works have been translated into forty-three languages and have sold more than ten million copies worldwide. Water for Elephants was adapted into a major motion picture starring Reese Witherspoon, Rob Pattinson, and Christoph Waltz in 2011. She lives in western North Carolina with her husband and three sons, along with their dogs, cats, horses, birds, and the world’s fussiest goat.

Read an Excerpt

Only three people were left under the red and white awning of the grease joint: Grady, me, and the fry cook. Grady and I sat at a battered wooden table, each facing a burger on a dented tin plate. The cook was behind the counter, scraping his griddle with the edge of a spatula. He had turned off the fryer some time ago, but the odor of grease lingered.

The rest of the midway—so recently writhing with people—was empty but for a handful of employees and a small group of men waiting to be led to the cooch tent. They glanced nervously from side to side, with hats pulled low and hands thrust deep in their pockets. They wouldn’t be dis appointed: somewhere in the back Barbara and her ample charms awaited.

The other townsfolk—rubes, as Uncle Al called them—had already made their way through the menagerie tent and into the big top, which pulsed with frenetic music. The band was whipping through its repertoire at the usual earsplitting volume. I knew the routine by heart—at this very moment, the tail end of the Grand Spectacle was exiting and Lottie, the aerialist, was ascending her rigging in the center ring.

I stared at Grady, trying to process what he was saying. He glanced around and leaned in closer.

“Besides,” he said, locking eyes with me, “it seems to me you’ve got a lot to lose right now.” He raised his eyebrows for emphasis. My heart skipped a beat.

Thunderous applause exploded from the big top, and the band slid seamlessly into the Gounod waltz. I turned instinctively toward the menagerie because this was the cue for the elephant act. Marlena was either preparing to mount or was already sitting on Rosie’s head.

“I’ve got to go,” I said. “Sit,” said Grady. “Eat. If you’re thinking of clearing out, it may be a while before you see food again.”

That moment, the music screeched to a halt. There was an ungodly collision of brass, reed, and percussion—trombones and piccolos skidded into cacophony, a tuba farted, and the hollow clang of a cymbal wavered out of the big top, over our heads and into oblivion. Grady froze, crouched over his burger with his pinkies extended and lips spread wide. I looked from side to side. No one moved a muscle—all eyes were directed at the big top. A few wisps of hay swirled lazily across the hard dirt.

“What is it? What’s going on?” I said.

“Shh,” Grady hissed.

The band started up again, playing “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

“Oh Christ. Oh shit!” Grady tossed his food onto the table and leapt up, knocking over the bench.

“What? What is it?” I yelled, because he was already running away from me.

“The Disaster March!” he screamed over his shoulder.

I jerked around to the fry cook, who was ripping off his apron. “What the hell’s he talking about?”

“The Disaster March,” he said, wrestling the apron over his head. “Means something’s gone bad — real bad.”

“Like what?”

“ Could be anything—fire in the big top, stampede, whatever. Aw sweet Jesus. The poor rubes probably don’t even know it yet.” He ducked under the hinged door and took off.

Chaos—candy butchers vaulting over counters, workmen staggering out from under tent flaps, roustabouts racing headlong across the lot. Anyone and everyone associated with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth barreled toward the big top.

Diamond Joe passed me at the human equivalent of a full gallop.

“ Jacob—it’s the menagerie,” he screamed. “The animals are loose. Go, go, go!”

He didn’t need to tell me twice. Marlena was in that tent. A rumble coursed through me as I approached, and it scared the hell out of me because it was on a register lower than noise. The ground was vibrating.

I staggered inside and met a wall of yak—a great expanse of curlyhaired chest and churning hooves, of flared red nostrils and spinning eyes. It galloped past so close I leapt backward on tiptoe, flush with the canvas to avoid being impaled on one of its crooked horns. A terrified hyena clung to its shoulders.

The concession stand in the center of the tent had been flattened, and in its place was a roiling mass of spots and stripes—of haunches, heels, tails, and claws, all of it roaring, screeching, bellowing, or whinnying. A polar bear towered above it all, slashing blindly with skillet-sized paws. It made contact with a llama and knocked it flat—boom. The llama hit the ground, its neck and legs splayed like the five points of a star. Chimps screamed and chattered, swinging on ropes to stay above the cats. A wild-eyed zebra zigzagged too close to a crouching lion, who swiped, missed, and darted away, his belly close to the ground.

My eyes swept the tent, desperate to find Marlena. Instead I saw a cat slide through the connection leading to the big top—it was a panther, and as its lithe black body disappeared into the canvas tunnel I braced myself. If the rubes didn’t know, they were about to find out. It took several seconds to come, but come it did—one prolonged shriek followed by another, and then another, and then the whole place exploded with the thunderous sound of bodies trying to shove past other bodies and off the stands. The band screeched to a halt for a second time, and this time stayed silent. I shut my eyes: Please God let them leave by the back end. Please God don’t let them try to come through here.

I opened my eyes again and scanned the menagerie, frantic to find her. How hard can it be to find a girl and an elephant, for Christ’s sake?

When I caught sight of her pink sequins, I nearly cried out in relief—maybe I did. I don’t remember.

She was on the opposite side, standing against the sidewall, calm as a summer day. Her sequins flashed like liquid diamonds, a shimmering beacon between the multicolored hides. She saw me, too, and held my gaze for what seemed like forever. She was cool, languid. Smiling even. I started pushing my way toward her, but something about her expression stopped me cold.

That son of a bitch was standing with his back to her, red-faced and bellowing, flapping his arms and swinging his silver-tipped cane. His high-topped silk hat lay on the straw beside him. She reached for something.

A giraffe passed between us—its long neck bobbing gracefully even in panic—and when it was gone I saw that she’d picked up an iron stake. She held it loosely, resting its end on the hard dirt. She looked at me again, bemused. Then her gaze shifted to the back of his bare head.

“Oh Jesus,” I said, suddenly understanding. I stumbled forward, screaming even though there was no hope of my voice reaching her. “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!”

She lifted the stake high in the air and brought it down, splitting his head like a watermelon. His pate opened, his eyes grew wide, and his mouth froze into an O. He fell to his knees and then toppled forward into the straw.

I was too stunned to move, even as a young orangutan flung its elastic arms around my legs.

So long ago. So long. But still it haunts me.

I don’t talk much about those days. Never did. I don’t know why—I worked on circuses for nearly seven years, and if that isn’t fodder for conversation, I don’t know what is.

Actually I do know why: I never trusted myself. I was afraid I’d let it slip. I knew how important it was to keep her secret, and keep it I did — for the rest of her life, and then beyond.

In seventy years, I’ve never told a blessed soul.

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Water for Elephants 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16093 reviews.
theReader278 More than 1 year ago
I loved reading this wonderful book! It is a story you don't forget.
LCH47 More than 1 year ago
The story moves cleverly between the world of 90, or possibly, 93 year old, Jacob, in a nursing home, as he tells the story of his life, the Depression era and the circus world. He was twenty-three and almost ready to take his final exam, when he receives word that both of his parents were in a car accident and did not survive. There was no money as he sat to take his final exam to become a veterinarian. Feeling desperate Jacob jumps on a moving train instead. Having no idea he has jumped on a circus train, he decides he has nothing left and starts working with the circus. He meets a beautiful woman, Marlena, but finds out quickly she is married to a mad-man. However, she returns the attraction and a great love story begins. Water for Elephants is a compelling story that tells us all about growing old, corrupt management, animal cruelty, wonderful animals, kindness and loyalty between people and between people and animals in a world where indifference and cruelty are common. The author's obvious extensive research of history and circus life added so much interest to the background of a wonderful meaningful, love story. This is such a wonderful read and well worth your time!
vivico1 More than 1 year ago
Very good story that is well written. Great transitions from the old Jacob to his younger self. Who knew a story about circus trains could be such a great book. Due to some graphic language or truth of treatment to some animals, I would recommend this book, but with that caution to anyone who may be too young and possibly some adults who are very sensitive to that kind of thing. It is hard to read at times about the cruelty, but it is real.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
From the begining this story grabbed my attention and kept it through out the entire book. Not only did I learn quite a bit about the curcus and this time period, but I guenuinely felt for the characters in the story including the animals.

I have lent this book to several of my friends, who found it just as delightful as I did. It was a great change from my usual readings. I will definitly be watching for more books by Sara Gruen.
kitkats More than 1 year ago
I wouldn't have read this on my own. It was a gift and what a gift it turned out to be! I loved it! One of my all time favs! I felt a kinship for the main character right a way . Everyone should read this book! you won't regret it.
clearwa_ves More than 1 year ago
I was so sad when I finished this book! The story wrapped up beautifully and made me misty eyed. I hated to put it down every night so I could sleep but I knew that if I kept reading, it would be over soon. There was some adult content in parts but the story was wonderful.
NatalieKathleen More than 1 year ago
I can hardly describe the meaningfulness, pure beauty, and originality of this historically fictional novel in any review; no words can do it justice. And so all there is to say about this story of life, love, and betrayal is that it will surely move you in ways I thought were impossible. Jacob and his times with the Benzini Brothers circus are chronicled here, as he remembers the lessons he learned in the most unconventional of places. A winning tribute to everyone who has worked for what he or she loved with every ounce of passion. Read it or dare to miss out!
Olga Gonzales More than 1 year ago
This book is on the teens list, but the language and sexual content is more for adult audiences.
Kathy34 More than 1 year ago
This book was selected for my book group and I could not put it down. It is more than deserving of all the praise. Highly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What a read! The characters are all so real, and the true emotions they share (and hide) make this one of the best books I have ever read. I recommend this book to everyone I know, and I have bought this book as a gift for many, many of my friends and family. True, it is a bit graphic in the telling of some of the men on the circus train, but then again, this is real life among the lonely and desperate members of the small circus. The ending was the most satisfying (read "happy" and "warming") I can remember in a long time, and it left me cheering (out loud!) for the main character. Hooray for "Water for Elephants"!!!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was chosen for my book club. I didn't think that I would like it because it was about the circus. I was completely wrong. The characters were beautifully described and I felt like I was there with them. It was a quick book to read and I didn't want to put it down. I bought the book before I finished it because I knew I would want this in my home library.
XXXOOOBookwormOOOXXX More than 1 year ago
Water for Elephants is told in the first person but from two different perspectives--Jacob Jankowski at 23 years of age and again, at 93 years old. Gruen seamlessly weaves the chapters between past and present. Jacob at 23 is finishing up his last semester at Cornell Veterinary School when a family tragedy causes him to flee. He finds himself on a train for the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth in 1931. Needing a vet, the circus hires young Jacob to tend to their menagerie. Jacob at 93 resides in a nursing home where he laments the curses of old age, the passing of his wife, and the waning affection of his family. The arrival of a visiting circus triggers a flashback to his youthful circus experiences.The eccentricities of the characters as well as the alarming treatment of both animals and performers propels the story and mezmerizes the reader. The complicated interpersonal relationships of the circus "family" is deftly interwoven with that of the rest home -family-.This is an interesting read that give some insight on what the early circus life was like and also a glimpse at how tough life was in the depression years. 
annalise123 More than 1 year ago
This story was so well-told and absorbing, I cannot praise it enough. It is told through the eyes of Jacob Janks, now an old man in a nursing home, he recounts his life in the Benzini Brothers circus during the Great Depression. Ms. Gruen's very unique talent for writing quickly draws the reader into this tale. The reader feels as if he/she is sitting on a sofa across from Janks as he tells his unique story. The characters are weird, funny, freakish and lovable. Of course, there is an elephant, Rosie, a kindhearted bull who only understands Polish. At first, people think she is stupid, but quite by accident, they discover she only responds to Polish commands and then they realize she is actually quite smart. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and could not put it down once I had started it. It is obvious that Ms. Gruen did quite a bit of research on the traveling circuses of the 1930's. She also includes actual pictures. It all comes together in a very entertaining read and an especially good ending. I loved it!
ragingval More than 1 year ago
OMG! This is one of the most awesome books I've every read. Do yourself a favor and read it!
chelsea00 More than 1 year ago
I must start by saying this book is very well written. The author does a wonderful job of jumping from past to future. You will love most of the characters and it gives you a good insight to how the world has changes. Now, what I did not like was the amount of animal abuse that was intertwined into the book. I found it very disturbing and almost could not finish the book. To be honest I love to read before bed. This is not the book to select before going to sleep. I found myself depressed and upset at the animal cruelty that goes on in this book. If I would have been warned I don't think I would have read this book at all. I love animals and it broke my heart to read many parts of this book. There is also domestic abuse that I also was not aware of. I finished the book in most part because all I wanted to see was a happy ending. If you love animals and are looking for a happy feel good book, this is not the book for you. If you like emotional draining, unhappy, and depressing books this is perfect. With that said I did not like this book at all.
Kate01 More than 1 year ago
Most people pick up the book Water for Elephants thinking they know what the circus is all about, but in reality, they know very little. Gruen exemplifies this misconception right away through her title, Water for Elephants, which initially sounds logical, but one learns that carrying water for elephants is impossibility. She addresses the false ideas people have to the reality of the circus numerous times throughout the book, explaining why she would use this incorrect assumption as her title. The story begins by introducing the reader to Jacob Jankowski, a cynical old man sitting in a nursing home, contemplating various aspects of life. While the story starts out from the point of view of a ninety or ninety- three year old man, the majority of the story is spent back when Jacob was twenty-three years old working for the circus as a veterinarian. One day, nearing the end of his Cornell education, the dean calls Jacob out of class to inform him that his parents have been killed in a car accident. Then, almost accidentally, he ends up on the Benzini Brother's Most Spectacular Show on Earth circus train. It is here that Jacob falls in love with the star of the show, Marlena, and later, an elephant named Rosie. Rosie turns out to be one of the best things that ever happened to Jacob, changing his life for the better in a number of different ways. Meanwhile, Jacob has been pursuing Marlena, but his attempts to win her heart are impeded because she is married to the psychotic animal manager. While the relationship plot progresses, Gruen continues to switch between when Jacob is twenty-three and when he is ninety- three, creating a more dynamic story than one would typically encounter. Gruen's style also creates a close relationship between the reader and Jacob because one can see him throughout the various stages of his life and cannot help but fall in love with him. Water for Elephants is definitely a book that will cause one to burn the midnight oil, simply because one falls in love with the story and has an insatiable desire to learn the outcome. Gruen's talent is also exemplified through her use of descriptive language, comparisons, and humor. In addition, her knowledge of Depression era circuses is outstanding; Gruen uses the correct vocabulary and notes the differences between present and past circus traditions, adding to the setting and making the story even more believable. However, while the text itself is not difficult, there are inappropriate and sexual scenes, which demand a mature audience. Water for Elephants will be undoubtedly loved by the reader, despite the less than satisfying ending. The story's conclusion feels as though Gruen was rushed and ran out of ideas, and quickly created a surreal ending. Regardless, Water for Elephants is a must read and definitely one of my favorite books; I would recommend it to anyone considering reading it.
mandi1082 More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book so much. I just could not put it down I always wanted to know what was going to happen next. Never in my years of reading have I read a book like this that was so different from anything I read before a great book if you enjoy historical fiction!
otmel More than 1 year ago
i dont often make postings regarding purchases, but in this case i thought i would make an exception. this book was one of the best books ive read in a long time. not only did i feel as if i was learning something about circus life back in the day (i tend to like historical fiction), but i was also intrigued with the characters and found myself wondering how the story would end up.... and i was not disappointed!! this book tells a great story and keeps you intereseted until the very end. i have not met anyone who has read it and not enjoyed it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This truly is a good story. But there are some very graphic sexual parts of the book you need to be aware of before you read the book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book kept my interest but was not one I would recommend to most of my friends. It was quite dark and had too many sexual references or scenes that had nothing to do with romance. A little weird.
kamknauss More than 1 year ago
While the storyline was fine, semi-interesting even, it was so poorly written that I'm almost shocked at all of the good reviews. The dialogue doesn't ring true. It's almost romance novel dialogue. As an avid reader I feel a bit dismayed that, for all the truly well-written and interesting stories out there, this is the one that gets promoted. I did read the entire thing and can remember the story. I just couldn't muster empathy for the not-believable animal abuse or the simpering circus performer. The nursing home exchanges were just silly at times. I'm no snob and will read just about anything, but this one was just meh.
LuvHisBaldHeadandTattoos More than 1 year ago
I love biographies and non-fiction. This was my first fiction book and I LOVED IT!! I read it in less than a week. I was so fascinated with it that I found it difficult to put down. ENJOY!!!
Annette13 More than 1 year ago
In my opinion, this book is probably one of the best I have ever read. Jacob Jankowski's character pertains to almost all ages. After his parent's deaths in Depression-era America, he quits finishing his finals to graduate from Cornell's veterinary school. He eventually runs away from his hometown to live a separate life, until he lands on a circus train car. Living there, he eventually becomes a veterinarian for the circus. His life on the circus creates an aura of intrigue, for the circus goers do not see all of the mystery of the circus, as the performers and workers see it as. Jacob's relationship with the animals is endearing, seemingly to show that the animals themselves are just like humans; however, they aren't as troublesome and sometimes act more civil than the other characters in the book seem to be. Of course, the book isn't exactly for a "family read," especially when the various sexual acts that are performed within the book are a bit too graphic, they still add to the circus's mysterious mask of not being as innocent as they try to be. Throughout his experience, he falls in love with a circus performer, even though she is married to the most terrifying workers there. But, his relationship with Rosie the elephant eventually helps bring Marlena (the performer) and Jacob together in the most unexpected way. This book has mystery, murder, romance and a little adventure in it, causing you to believe that this is one of the most enjoyable books that you have ever read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was an overall success in my experience with it. The book's main character is someone that almost anyone can relate to, even if his experiences aren't the same as the reader's. Although there were several scenes that were a bit too sexually graphic for my taste, the pure emotion portrayed in the characters pulled me into the story. I would sit down to read for a few minutes and read for an hour because I had to know what happened next. I was also intrigued by the transitions in the story between the present and the memories of the past. Hearing the story told from an old man who has experienced many hardships but still was able to find the love of his life made the story more endearing. His relationship with the animals of the circus was also an interesting aspect. The loving relationships in the story are a great aspect, but the hateful and evil aspects of relationships make the book that much easier to relate to. Although the characters' lives do not end perfectly, and many tragedies occur in the book, but these hardships make the good things more precious. The book was a very easy read, and I would certainly recommend it to someone who won't be offended by the sexual encounters described in it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book! The opening scene hooks you right away and keeps you searching for answers up until the very end. I fell in love with all the crazy characters. Beautiful writing!