When his parents are killed in a traffic accident, Jacob Jankowski hops a train after walking out on his final exams at Cornell, where he had hoped to earn a veterinary degree. The train turns out to be a circus train, and since it's the Depression, when someone with a vet's skills can attach himself to a circus if he's lucky, Jacob soon finds himself involved with the animal acts-specifically with the beautiful young Marlena, the horse rider, and her husband, August. Jacob falls for Marlena immediately, and the ensuing triangle is at the center of this novel, which follows the circus across the states. Jacob learns the ins and outs of circus life, in this case under the rule of the treacherous Uncle Al, who cheats the workers and deals roughly with patrons who complain about blatant false advertising and rip-off exhibits. Jacob and Marlena are attracted to each other, but their relationship is fairly innocent until it becomes clear that August is not merely jealous but dangerously mentally deranged. Old-fashioned and endearing, this is an enjoyable, fast-paced story told by the older Jacob, now in his nineties in a nursing home. From the author of Riding Lessons; recommended for all libraries.
"Novelist Gruen unearths a lost world with her rich and surprising portrayal of life in a traveling circus in the '30s. An emotional tale that will please history buffs—and others." —People
"[This] sprightly tale has a ringmaster's crowd-pleasing pace."
"At its finest, Water for Elephants resembles stealth hits like 'The Giant's House,' by Elizabeth McCracken, or 'The Lovely Bones,' by Alice Sebold, books that combine outrageously whimsical premises with crowd-pleasing romanticism. . . . Black-and-white photographs of real American circus scenes from the first half of the century are interspersed throughout the novel, and they brilliantly evoke the dignified power contained in the quieter moments of this unusual brotherhood. . . . With a showman's expert timing, [Gruen] saves a terrific revelation for the final pages, transforming a glimpse of Americana into an enchanting escapist fairy tale."
—New York Times Book Review
"You'll get lost in the tatty glamour of Gruen's meticulously researched world, from spangled equestrian pageantry and the sleazy side show to an ill-fated night at a Chicago speak-easy."
"Water for Elephants resembles stealth hits like The Giant's House, by Elizabeth McCracken, or The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold, books that combine outrageously whimsical premises with crowd-pleasing romanticism. . . . With a showman's expert timing, [Gruen] saves a terrific revelation for the final pages, transforming a glimpse of Americana into an enchanting escapist fairy tale."—The New York Times Book Review
"Has a ringmaster's crowd-pleasing pace" - Entertainment Weekly
"You'll get lost in the tatty glamour of Gruen's meticulously researched world, from spangled equestrian pageantry and the sleazy side show to an ill-fated night at a Chicago speak-easy"
“Lively with historical detail and unexpected turns. . . . Water for Elephants is a rich surprise, a delightful gem springing from a fascinating footnote to history that absolutely deserved to be mined.”
—The Denver Post
"For pure story, this colorful, headlong tale of a Depression-era circus simply can't be beat. Heroes, villains, romance, a wild-animal stampede! Big fun from page 1."—Stephen King, Entertainment Weekly: "Best & Worst 2007"