Book Review: Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

I won a copy of Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen about a year ago from another blog’s giveaway, and for some reason have let it sit at the bottom of my To Be Read pile.

Having now just finished it, though, I feel like shouting:  I LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE THIS BOOK!  Times like this make a booklover crazy there isn’t someone sitting just across the room with whom they can begin discussing the book right away.

Ok, disclaimer for all my fabulous church friends and others sensitive to certain content:  there are a few scenes I would qualify as sexually graphic.  That is typically enough for me to both close the book and then refrain from recommending it to anyone, but I have to say that while it was graphic, it was not what I consider gratuitous.  Meaning, the scenes were few and far between, and were actually relevant to the main character’s experiences.  I’m not sure we would have understood the complexity of what he was going through without them (although I do hope they work some cinematic magic when the movie is made and just imply what happened).  Yeah, yeah, I wouldn’t eat a bowl of soup if there was just one tiny fly in it, whatever.  I’m just trying to give fair warning here.

Here’s the synopsis from author Sara Gruen‘s website:

As a young man, Jacob Jankowski was tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. It was the early part of the great Depression, and for Jacob, now ninety, the circus world he remembers was both his salvation and a living hell. A veterinary student just shy of a degree, he was put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie.

It was there that he met Marlena, the beautiful equestrian star married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. And he met Rosie, an untrainable elephant who was the great gray hope for this third-rate traveling show. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and, ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.

What no synopsis can tell you is just how magnificent Gruen’s writing is.  How vivid and real she makes Jacob’s world, both in the assisted living facility from where he is narrating this story, to the circus life on the train and under the big top.  Each and every character is finely drawn, complex, almost breathing in sync with the reader.  The story is intense and heartbreaking and hopeful.  Gruen crafts an unexpected ending to the circus tale, and a delightful surprise at the end of Jacob’s present-day.

I honestly felt like cheering when I finished Water for Elephants.  I loved it!

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