three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
24-Sept-Oct-2006
By: 
Sara Gruen
user_rating: 
0

A-Water for ElephantsJacob Jankowski, a 23-year-old veterinary student at Cornell during the Depression, has only final exams to negotiate before he can join his father in practice. That dream is shattered, however, when Jacob’s parents are killed in a car accident. Aimless and broke, Jacob unwittingly boards a train that houses a shabby circus; in short order, he starts working for the circus’s animal trainer, August Rosenbluth. Soon a love triangle develops between August, August’s wife Marlena, and Jacob, who recalls the experience more than 70 years later from his nursing home.
Algonquin. 335 pages. $23.95. ISBN: 1565124995

Charlotte Observer 4 of 5 Stars
"Gruen sketches out character, events, and the circus’s special lingo with well-chosen words. … She keeps the story moving like a speeding train." Lynne McNeil

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"One of the many pleasures of this novel is the opportunity to enter a bizarrely coded and private world with is own laws, superstitions and vocabulary. … The pleasures of that world were so compelling, so detailed and vivid, that I couldn’t bear to be torn away from it for a single minute." Sharon Pomerantz

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Gruen has done her homework, and Water for Elephants is lively with historical detail and unexpected turns. … [The novel] is a rich surprise, a delightful gem springing from a fascinating footnote to history that absolutely deserved to be mined." Robin Vidimos

Minneapolis Star-Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"All [the novel’s] seedy grifters, fake ‘freaks,’ and ‘cooch girls’ turn out to be more interesting on paper than they ever were to me in their often unattractive flesh. … Gruen’s sympathy for [her protagonist] and for the aging process in general is her strongest suit." Mickey Pearlman

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Gruen infuses her audacious material with a surprisingly uplifting strain of sentimentality. … But Gruen’s prose is merely serviceable, and she hurtles through cataclysmic events, overstuffing her whiplash narrative with drama." Elizabeth Judd

Cleveland Plain Dealer 2 of 5 Stars
"Readers … are battered with barely serviceable, primary-color prose, full of sobbing, shrieking, fighting, boozing, and whoring that comes off at the clip of an exaggerated, Saturday-morning cartoon. … Personally, I want more art in my reading." Karen R. Long

Critical Summary

Water for Elephants, Gruen’s third novel, is a "cozy read" that has produced a "copious amount of buzz" (Cleveland Plain Dealer). No stranger to marrying the fates of her characters to animals, Gruen previously published the novels Riding Lessons (2004) and Flying Changes (2005), both of which focus on horses and horsemanship. Despite cries of "serviceable" prose, Gruen has done her research on the history of the period, in particular its traveling shows (illustrated here in 15 black-and-white prints). Jacob’s search for lost time is vivid and atmospheric, his story told with passion and an eye for the curious and entertaining detail.