Staff Picks (Book Reviews)

Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen

reviewed by Cynthia Long

May 17, 2017

We recently finished reading Sara Gruen’s Water For Elephants at the Library’s Book Discussion Group, and it was so good I wanted to share.

The Prologue reveals the “secret” before the story even begins: a circus murder. We discover that a veterinarian and an animal-act showgirl fall in love with a remarkably sensitive and apparently stupid elephant. The tension driving this novel is not what happened but how such a drastic circus-tent murder came to be. Interspersed between the main story, set in the past, relating young Jacob’s experience with the Benzini Brothers circus is the present-day narrative of ninety-year-old Jacob’s day-to-day existence in a nursing home.

The nursing home chapters are especially poignant, capturing the everyday horror of an institutionalized existence with few visitors. No wonder old Jacob prefers to dwell on his glamorous circus past.

The details about life in a traveling circus are well-researched and fascinating, and heading each chapter are actual photographs of historical circuses. The developing romance between young Jacob and Marlena carries the story along. Yet I was frustrated by the chapters set in the nursing home. The “main plot,” the circus plot, was thrilling; the nursing home tale was as dull and mundane as the mushy peas served to the residents.

Until the ending: and the true surprise is not the fleshed-out expanse of the pre-indicated murder.

At the age of ninety-one—or is it ninety-three?—Jacob Jankowski runs away and joins the circus, proving it’s never too late to live a life that gives your great-great-grandchildren something to talk about.

Originally published in slightly different version at

Reprinted with permission.

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