Mar 15 2011 5:00pm

Water for Elephants: Can the Movie Top the Book?

Water for Elephants posterAuthor Sara Gruen’s Water For Elephants is not exactly a title that makes you swoon. It sounds literary and artsy-fartsy, about something really sad like the mistreatment of animals or a drought in a third world country. But it’s way better than that—it’s actually about a guy who runs away and joins the circus during the Great Depression.

What the what? Hear me out.

The Depression Era grabs me like no other. Some people like Regency, Medieval, Georgian, or Ancient Rome; for me, it’s the Depression. The appeal for me is that it was when the power of the American spirit was tested like no other.

With all this love for a depression you’d think I’d have read a ton of fictitious tales depicting it. But I haven’t, so was stoked to find out about this one. Plus it’s also about the circus! Bonus! Schwing!

Water for Elephants by Sara GruenThe cover art piqued my interest immediately: A man wearing a red-sequined jacket leans into that wonderful striped Big Top tent. What is he seeing? What’s going on in there? I cracked the pages and started reading on my commute home.

I. Could. Not. Stop. Reading.

First of all, it opens with an action-packed flashback to a circus stampede. I snorted out loud, on the el train, when Jacob, the main character, overhears the warning music from the Big Top and says, “There was an ungodly collision of brass, reed, and percussion—trombones and piccolos skidded into cacophony, a tuba farted, and the hollow clang of symbol wavered out of the big top.” To describe the sound a tuba makes as a fart is classic! I knew then I’d love this book. Gruen had me at fart. Flatulence is hysterical! Fart has to be the funniest dang word in the English Dictionary.

Chapter one opens with Jacob who is ninety or ninety-three, he can’t remember, sitting in a nursing home as he reflects on his youth in the circus. He reaches into the far recesses of his mind to recall how he met her

Super duper sigh. You mean I get the Great Depression, the circus, tuba farts, and now a love story? I think I love you, Sara Gruen. No, I know I do.

This pulse-pounding, comedic, heart-wrenching tale goes back and forth from 1931 to now. Jacob Jankowski recalls how he met the love of his life during the adventure of a lifetime. Gruen weaves a story of finding true love, fighting for it, and holding on to the memory of it in old age amongst the backdrop of a circus. You have the fame seeking circus owner, the psycho ring master, the beautiful and abused menagerie, dwarfs, clowns, dogs, and of course an elephant.

Jacob runs away from his Ivy League education after a family tragedy. He gets lost in the circus where he can tend to animals and leave his past behind. There, he meets the love of his life who just so happens to be married to the ring master, a bipolar manic depressive who abuses the animals, any one who dares cross him, and even his lovely wife, Marlena.

The virgin hero stays on to save her and saves himself in the process. This is all told by an elderly Jacob, who sits in a nursing home, waiting to go to the recent circus that’s come to town.

The elegant way Gruen travels back in forth in time made me feel like old Jacob was sitting next to me telling his life story. I felt him as a young man experiencing his joy, pain, and fear. Turn the page, and I was sitting with my grandmother’s generation, feeling the joy, pain, and fear of old age, your last days alone in a nursing home.

The book has photos scattered throughout from actual depression era circuses, cementing you more into Jacob’s world. A world where he follows his heart and finds true love. This is NOT a romance novel, per se, but when you break it down, it really is: You’ve got the virgin hero, the damsel in distress, and the villain who gets in their way.

You must read this book before seeing the upcoming movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson. Here is the trailer. You will need to read this book after seeing it. Be sure to have popcorn, roasted peanuts, and time to spare. You won’t be able to put it down.


Charli Mac, Aspiring Author, Mother, Wife & Part-Time Clown

Twitter @CharliMacs

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Heather Waters
1. HeatherWaters
I have to admit I have not yet read the book, though I've been hearing rave reviews for years. *adds to the TBR pile*
Megan Frampton
2. MFrampton
Hey Charli, until you mentioned it, I didn't realize I tend to like the Depression also. Huh.

I read Geek Love a zillion years ago, set in a circus, and that weird heightened atmosphere of entertainment, and being on the road, and oddball people is totally compelling. Haven't read WFE yet, but the preview looks good.
3. EvangelineHolland
Yay for 1930s love!

I admit to being turned off by the boring title of Gruen's book, but seeing the trailer makes me want to find WFE stat!
4. chrael
I agree, this book was fantastic. So good, in fact, that I'm sure I'll be terribly disappointed by the movie, as is almost always the case.

For other Sara Gruen love, Riding Lessons and Flying Changes are also excellent, I think probably even if you're not a horseperson.
Charli Mac
5. CharliMac
@redline You must read before the movie comes out. Awesome!

@meganf I have read so much nonfiction from the depression era and was shocked to realize I'd not dabbled in fiction. WFE was a beautfiul read. Stunning really.

@evangeline Yes, the title does nothing for this book. You MUST read this. You will snort out loud SOL!

@charael Yes, all books are far better than their Hollywood counterparts but I am so stoked to see this one! I plan on picking up Gruen's other novels soon.
Betty b
6. Betty b
It's been along time since I 've seen a movie trailer that instanly pulls you into the storyline . I am a fan of all the main characters. I believe WFE it will be one of the best movie this year. Can't wait for April 22nd:)
Betty b
7. Krystyna
This book actually made me laugh and sincerely cry. I really loved the characters. Well, loved some and hated others.
The old circus photos were great in the book - I hope there's a little of that grey/graininess of the faded pictures inserted into all the lovely movie jewel tones somehow.
The movie looks beautiful and I cannot wait to see it, though I am reserving judgement on the casting of young Jacob until I see the whole thing.
We have to wait 'til April 22??
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