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Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen.

I really really really liked this book. I didn't expect to, but I did. And the same goes for the movie. 

I seldom read books like this, nor do I watch many rom-com-movies. I got the book as a Christmas present last year from my sister. The story was quite light reading, but that was a nice change after reading some abstruse novels lately, like the Catch-22 or the Tinker Tailor… Both of them were the kind of books that make you very sleepy, but this on the other hand kept me awake because I didn't want to put it down. I actually watched the movie first, maybe a year ago, when I was sick and there was really nothing else on. I was surprised how much I liked the story despite my preconceived opinion about it: I didn't expect much of the movie even though I do have a soft spot for period dramas and animals. And I loved Dumbo as a child.

The story is set in the 1930’s America battling with the Great Depression and about Jacob, a young man whose parents die in a car crash leaving him penniless and homeless. Distraught he jumps a train only to find himself onboard a traveling circus “the Flying Squadron of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth”. He falls in love with Marlena who is married to the show’s animal trainer August. The love story is quite worthless in my opinion: Marlena is kind of a boring character and August is old-fashionedly portrayed as a typical villain with his bi-polar disorder and rage issues. I think he is deliberately shown only as vicious and cruel, so that Jacob can be the hero saving the damsel in distress and there's no need to worry about the ethics of Marlena cheating on August with Jacob.

What I liked about the story (both in the book and the movie) were the animals. The animal cruelty sent shivers down my spine and I wanted to put the book down at those moments, even though I know that it was normal behavior back then. However the parts where the animals were portrayed as characters who felt love and joy and anger were the best in the book. The love story between Jacob and Rosie the elephant was in my opinion a much more believable and greater than the one between Jacob and Marlena.

I would have wanted more insight into the life of the circus, or depth to the characters. Jacob seems to forget his previous life and the death of his parents fairly quickly and his transition to the world of traveling circus is implausibly smooth with the exception of a few small incidents at the beginning where Jacob doesn't know the hierarchy of the circus staff (performers don't mix with the workmen) or how the show functions. Many of the other characters are very black-and-white, with August and Blackie being just pure evil and Marlena just kind and sweet. The era of Depression and Prohibition is also left a bit obscure except for a couple of raids, contraband alcohol and a lot of people without jobs. The characters and the setting are interesting but Gruen doesn't seem to use them as much as she could and the whole story can be summarized as "boy meets a girl, but she's married and her husband is a violent and abusive di*k who beats her so he steals her away and they live happily ever after." The only difference between this and thousands of other similar stories is Rosie the elephant, who in my opinion is the star of the book.

Despite all these shortcomings, the story was beautifully written and warmhearted, very entertaining and I really liked it. Yes, there was potential to make the story even greater instead of a bit childish love story, but I did enjoy reading it nonetheless.


  1. I like your book reviews! Though I too watched the film (during a very long flight) and liked it more than I expected to, I don't think I'll be picking this one up, I just can't stand a weak or pointless love story.

    Do you knit while reading?

    1. I do knit while reading but not always. If the book is something I have to concentrate on or if I'm knitting something hard, then I do those things separately. But with books like this that are easy to read I sometimes knit at the same time.


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