Cover of book, Water for Elephants


Fiction Book Review – Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

I first found this book after being hammered by it every time I visited Amazon. It popped up no matter what I was doing. When I first had a look at the description, I thought I’d be bored reading it. Seemed like an “old lady’s” book. I put it off. Still, Amazon kept throwing it in my face every chance it got. I cracked open the book and read the preview. I was immediately hooked. I never thought in my life I’d read a book about a carnival… but there I was, fully sucked in and hopelessly stuck reading it. As it turned out, it was good. It was a good use of my time. I very rarely say that, because my time is everything!


Stripped of everything after his parents’ untimely death, twenty-three-year old Jacob Jankowski has failed to sit for his veterinary exams at Cornell, left with no home and no future, the country struggling through the Great Depression, bartering in goods instead of money. Hopping a train that by chance belongs to The Flying Squadron of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, Jacob hires on to care for the menagerie, his training an entre into this bizarre world; but as the novel begins, Jacob is an old man, restricted to an assisted living home, his memories sparked by a nearby visiting circus and a creeping helplessness that assaults his ageing body: “Age is a terrible thief. Just when you think you’re getting the hang of it, it knocks your legs out from under you and stoops your back.” – Luan Gaines at Amazon.

1. Cover – sucked. 0/5. Probably couldn’t be worse. Show an image of an elephant in pain, being tortured or something. Show a woman circus woman killing the show’s owner. Show anything but the back end of someone going into a circus tent. I think this book could have sold three times as many copies had they done something (anything) with the cover. I’m sure of it. But, Sara’s still laughing all the way to the bank.

2. Believability Overall – High. 5/5. Not that it was perfectly believable, it all became too much by the end, but as it went on I kept asking myself – is this real? I love when I can’t figure it out 100%. I like to get lost in a story because it happens too infrequently. This one almost had me completely, but there were a number of things that finally added up and I knew it was a game… fiction. The rate at which the security detail for the circus was throwing people from a moving train, got out of hand after a while. It just wasn’t believable as it repeatedly happened.

3. Character Development? Good. 3/5. We get some background information about a couple of the main characters, and it’s enough. It isn’t great, but it’s something, and appreciated. If they would have gone further, I think the story could have been really amazing.

4. Character Believability – High. 5/5. There were a couple of characters that I wondered about, and this is one of the things what finally made me throw in the towel and give up trying to believe in the story as non-fiction. A hundred years ago, early 1900’s – people were different. Harder for sure, and they got away with it.

5. Research – quite good. 5/5. Though I didn’t cross-check anything, it was all believable enough that I was hooked on the story because it seemed like this is exactly what a circus atmosphere would be like. There was some information about elephants that seemed to be right on.

6. Coolness Factor – 3/5. Most of us have seen a circus or carnival. We’ve wondered what it might be like to run away with one. We’ve all wondered about the whacky characters that are always part of the show. This book held some intrigue there. Of course it made me want to keep my daughter from ever seeing a circus.

7. Amazon Reviews –  4.5 out of 5 Stars, 7,474 reviewers! This was probably the deciding factor which pushed me to crack the book open and start reading. I mean, what book has 7,000+ reviews?

8. Reviewers – great reviews from individual readers and the media. Here are some…

Over 10,000,000 copies in print worldwide
#1 New York Times Bestseller
A Los Angeles Times Bestseller
A Wall Street Journal Bestseller
A Newsday Favorite Book of 2006
A USA Today Bestseller
A Major Motion Picture starring Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, and Christoph Waltz

9. Feature Film – Yes, of the same name. Released in 2013. Director: Francis Lawrence. Writers: Richard LaGravenese (screenplay), Sara Gruen (novel). Stars: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz.

10. Similar Writers – I don’t read in this genre much (never), so I couldn’t even guess.


Similar Stories: See “10.” above.

What I Learned About Writing:

The story matters so much more than anything else. The author is Canadian and just started writing on a whim in 1999. It goes to show that anyone with an amazing story, work ethic to do the research and create a top notch product, and talent – has a possibility to do something fantastic. One source said there were over 10,000,000 copies of this book in print. Not sure, are they counting ebooks as well? If not (or, if so) it’s damn impressive.

Writing a successful novel is sometimes a matter of not screwing up too much. Almost every ficiton novel I’ve ever read has had some defect. Most of them pretty major. If you can get through 90,000 words without screwing up badly, and you have a good story – you’re going to do OK. Sometimes better than OK. I can’t recall any major problem with this story, it was quite tight.

Write tight people!