Audiobook: Water for Elephants

by Sarah Gruen
Read by David LeDoux and John Randolph Jones
ages: adult
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It’s no secret that I don’t do well with books on the bestseller list. And so it was with much trepidation that I picked this one up. (I say “much trepidation” but really it was curiosity and a sense that maybe the hype had died down…)

For the three of you who haven’t read it: it’s the Depression and Jacob Jankowski is a veterinary student at Cornell, just about to sit for his last final exams when his parents were killed in a tragic accident. This throws Jacob completely off course, and one fateful night, he jumps a train. It turns out to be the train for the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. And in one fell swoop  — and for three and half tumultuous months — Jacob’s life is changed.

First and foremost, this is a circus book. And it’s not a pretty picture. There’s Uncle Al, the ring master, who is vain and malicious. August, the animal trainer who is alternately charming and violent. And because these two are in charge, the whole environment of the circus is not healthy, to say the least. Jacob falls in with a dwarf named Walter; the relationship is rocky at first, but eventually they form a close friendship. And he falls in love with the lovely Marlena, the star of the Liberty Horse act, and August’s wife.

But where do the elephants come in? I have to admit that I was a tad disappointed there; the jacketflap (do audiobooks have jacketflaps?) implied that there was a bond between Jacob, Marlena and Rosie, the elephant the Benzini Brothers show picks up soon after Jacob joins on. But, I never really felt it. Sure, the elephant was the catalyst for much of what happened in the book, but really? I wish Jacob had done more, interacted more with the elephant. It seemed to me he spent much of his time running around, baffled as to what the heck was going on. And I did feel quite cheated by the climax. It was an honest twist, but I think Gruen misled us on purpose, which always gets my hackles up.

What really made the book for me was the present day segments, when Jacob was “ninety or ninety-three.” I have a friend who is currently studying gerontology, and keeps me up to date on her studies. Because of that, I had more sympathy for Jacob’s situation, being in a nursing home, and his concerns about getting old. He was alternately a sweetheart and a firecracker, and I adored him.

That said, I think that audio was the best way for me to experience this one. Both the narrators were excellent (LeDoux read the young Jacob; Jones the older one), and because of that I was able to really “see” the book in a way I don’t think I would have, had I read it.

I’m not sure if my good experience with this one will change my opinion on bestsellers. But I can say that this one was worth my time.

9 thoughts on “Audiobook: Water for Elephants

  1. I enjoyed this one when I read it 5 years ago. I haven't had a strong desire to see the movie though. Perhaps it's the “not a pretty picture” that I don't want to see brought to life!


  2. Really? I should really read it then? I have been a little nervous about this one. I've come very close to renting the movie too. Do you think book before movie? Or is movie before book okay with this one? Gah, the dilemmas!!!


  3. Suey: really. I liked it. It's not pretty, but I was drawn in by the audio book. But I don't know about the book before movie dliemma. On one hand, it's Robert Patterson and Reese Witherspoon… on the other hand… ?


  4. One of my favorite audio books ever. I recommend this all the time to those who want to know what are the best books in audio form.

    Great review — glad you liked it! I fell in love with the elephant and cried when she was mistreated.


  5. One of my book lovin’ friends continuously recommends I read this book. I finally picked up a copy around the holidays. I got about half way through when Kim Jong-il of North Korea died and I set it aside for Barbara Demick’s, “Nothing to Envy.” I never picked it back up. I was also enjoying the present day segments more than the circus scenes and I think you summed up why perfectly, “Jacob spent much of his time running around, baffled as to what the heck was going on.” Perhaps I would have stuck with it if I had listened to it on audio. I will have to remember that next time.


  6. I really enjoyed this book back when I read it ages ago. I was a bit worried about the movie, but the guy and I went to see it and we both enjoyed it. 🙂 (I actually enjoyed the Twilight guy and everything which was mainly what I was worried about…)


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