Kevin's Reviews > Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
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did not like it

** spoiler alert ** I wanted to like this book. I really did. I even enjoyed the first couple of chapters and was prepared for an entertaining summer read Eventually, however, the lack of imagination, melodrama, and just plain bad writing did it in for me. At the risk of beating a dead horse (albeit a dead horse with tremendous appeal to book clubs across the United States), let me enumerate the problems (spoiler alert – not that I suggest you read this book anyway):

1. Neither the narrator, nor any of the other characters in Water for Elephants, for that matter, even remotely sound like they live in the 1930s, nor does the old man sound like an old man in the present-day chapters (in fact, he sounds exactly like he did as a 22-year old in the 1930s chapters). This indicates that the author has either a completely tin ear for a dialogue or not enough imagination to put her self into the minds of her characters.

2. In the movie version of this book (which surely must the on the way), our narrator Jacob surely must be played by Alan Alda, age difference be damned. He is, without a doubt, the nicest, most sensitive character to appear in any book I have the memory of reading (and I’m counting the Bible). On at least half-a-dozen occasions, he breaks down in tears at the cruel injustice of the world, including becoming comatose for over an hour (yes, over an hour – the author is explicit) after putting down a sick horse – despite being a veterinarian. Perhaps rethinking his line of work is in order.

3. Melodrama and sentimentality, offered with the utmost sincerity, dominates all the action in the book. Chapters are dotted with multiple fights, murders, stampedes and other calamities, creating not drama but rather a creeping sense of incredulousness in the reader. To illustrate with two examples: At the end of the 1930s storyline, following a deadly stampede in which the villain is murdered (yes, murdered) by an elephant (yes, an elephant), the narrator marries the girl (thus rescuing her from an abusive relationship) and takes from the recently failed circus 12 horses, a dog, a monkey, and an elephant (yes, an elephant!) to live with him and his wife happily ever after. This is not played for laughs. We are meant to be moved by the noble sacrifice, I think. At the end of the present-day storyline, our same narrator, now widowed and without his menagerie, runs off to join the circus (again) and the age of 93, in what has all the makings of a Hallmark movie.

4. Modern-day, therapy-driven (dare I say “touchy-feely”) sentiment pervades the entire story, especially those parts set in the 1930s. The book teaches (and remember, this is a book meant for adults, not children) such valuable lessons as: treating the elderly with respect is important; racism and antisemitism are wrong; violence against women is wrong; being cruel to animals (or even thinking of them as less important than people) is wrong; all people are important, not matter what there is; little people (dwarfs) have a difficult time in the world and deserve or respect; etc. By keeping her story in bondage to these platitudes, Gruen creates exceptionally one-dimensional characters who either support modern and politically correct values (and thus are good) or don’t (and thus are bad, unless of course they suffers from mental illness and the stings of antisemitism, in which case they are to be pitied). I can’t count the number of times I rolled my eyes, as the narrator, recently orphaned, covered in horse shit, and practically starving during the Great Depression, takes the time to think of those less fortunate. A narrator with a little bit more dirt on his soul would have been much more believable and ultimately more sympathetic.

N.B. – To continue my rant: The blurb that accompanies this book on the New York Times bestseller list reads something to the effect “Young man and an elephant save Depression-era circus.” Did the person who wrote that event read the book? The circus collapses into a spasm of chaos and violence at the end of the book.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
September 20, 2007 – Finished Reading
May 29, 2008 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-50 of 57 (57 new)

Ja'net I wholeheartedly agree. This was one of the worst books I've read in a really long time. It wasn't even worth the energy I'd need to expend to hurl it across the room. So I simply put it down and later punished it by placing on my bookshelf in a space designated for books I wish I hadn't read, for books I'm embarrassed to have read.

Savannah I felt tremendous sympathy for the "villain," because he was mad and could not help his behavior. That was made quite clear. And I did think the ending was kind of overblown, with them adopting all those animals, but I found a kind of humor in it. I didn't think it was meant to be taken *totally* seriously, but yes, it came across as pretty extreme.

Kevin Danielo,
Thank you very much for your comment! WFE was a book that I felt started fine enough, but seemed to quickly get out of control. Based on its popular reception, however, our opinion seems to be the minority one.

Savannah PS Yes, there IS a movie deal in the works.

Kevin Savannah,

Thank you very much for commenting on my review! I can see your point about the adoption of the animals at the end bring lightly played for laughs, but the books had lost my sympathy at that point, making me unwilling to take the bait.

As for the villain - it was the author's explicit statement that he was a paranoid schizophrenic that bothered me more than anything else. She had clearly established that he had violent mood swings. Having one of the characters basically say "he can't help it, he's mentally ill" was (yet another example) of the book not trusting its readers to make any moral judgements about the characters or their actions.

Kevin Hello again Savannah - it looks like our messages crossed in the ether :)

Thanks for the update on the movie. I should say - snarkiness of my review aside - that I really respect how difficult it is to write a novel, even one that I don't think is all that good. That being said, while I didn't like WFE, I don't begrudge Sara Gruen her success, particularly compared to all the other ridiculous ways that people make a lot of money these days. I hope that the movie is a hit.

Savannah Oh, I am not in total disagreement with you. You know, part of the difference in our reviews may have been our expectations. Were you expecting to love this book like crazy? I was expecting to hate it and barely get through it. I largely ignored the admittedly cartoony moments and fell into the time and space--the mess tents, the disease from crappy booze, the veterenarian experiences...I thought all of those were intriguing.

message 8: by Zoe (new) - rated it 4 stars

Zoe It's not the worst book ever written. I actually truly enjoyed reading it (I'm a big circus fan). I think I can understand your point of view, but I have to disagree with #1. I don't know if the character embodied someone living in the 1930s, but I thought the author did an excellent job portraying him as an old man in the present day chapters. In fact, having spent a great deal of time in assisted living facilities myself, I was even impressed. Also, in my opinion there seemed to be a realistic difference between his 22-year-old self and 90- or 93-year-old self.

Anyway, just my opinion. I'm surprised you were able to finish reading the book since you disliked it so much.

Kevin Zoe - thanks for the comment! You're right - it's certainly not the worst book ever written (I won't even speculate on what is), and I did think that the setting and characters had great potential. As you note, I finished it (quickly actually), so something must have held my interest. Still, nothing really working for me - plot, characters, nothing.

Savannah - Expectations probably has something to do with our different reactions. I really didn't know much about WFE when I picked it up (other than its long run on the NYT bestseller list), but the first chapter got my hopes up. After that, I thought it was mainly down hill, which probably did lead to a sense of disappointment.

message 10: by Dan (new) - rated it 2 stars

Dan Hey Kevin,

Nice review! I think you hit most of the flaws that bugged me right on the head. Maybe a bit harsh in spots, I certainly didn't think that the book was awful, merely overblown and far too predictable.

I have to totally agree that one of the main disappointments of this novel was that the beginning starts out so well and has a great amount of intrigue. Even the second time around, I found myself thinking "Wow! I really did miss out on something when I read it the first time! This stuff is great!" But then of course, all of the well-laid plot collapses amidst the weight of an uninspired love story and forced sentimentality. Probably the second most disappointing aspect of this book for me was all of the potential that August's character had, but which never manifested in the narrative. We're told that he is bipolar, vacillating between charming and irrational rage, but even in his "manic" state August is portrayed as conniving and extremely suspicious. He is never likable and his motives are transparent and seemingly driven only by insane jealousy.

Too bad. The book has a number of colorful scenes that really stand out in my head. Unfortunately, the main characters are just too much paper cut-outs and too little depth and they merely pale in comparison to their surroundings.

Louis Kevin,

I just wrote a review of the book based on my memories from reading it for a book club about six weeks ago. I realize now I was much too generous in my appraisal. When I read a novel, especially one that it not considered great literature, I try to just lose myself in it. That is impossible when you start to marvel at the stereotyped plot points. You got it absolutely right with the Hallmark remark. Thanks for braving the onslaught of people who fell in love with the book to point out its flaws.

message 12: by Kevin (new) - rated it 1 star

Kevin Louis,

Thank you for your comment. While the setting of WFE is certainly interesting, I found it all too unbelievable to ever truly engage my interest.


Barbara Thank you for the review! Considering all of the positive press this book is getting, I thought that I was really missing something. All of a sudden, I was halfway through the book and couldn't find anything to like.

message 14: by Caroline (new)

Caroline Kevin you are totally right. Can't figure out why people think this book is so great. It's not

message 15: by Kevin (new) - rated it 1 star

Kevin Caroline wrote: "Kevin you are totally right. Can't figure out why people think this book is so great. It's not"

Thanks, Caroline. I appreciate the feedback.

Siyuan I agree with most of this review and I had pretty lukewarm feelings towards the book. It definitely felt cartoonish and Hallmarky and fell short of its potential as a story about life on a Depression-Era circus train.

However, I'm a bit confused by some of the comments here regarding August and his "paranoid schizophrenia." Given that this diagnosis comes from Uncle Al, who's far from a reliable authority, and he bungles the name of the mental illness, and they're on the road all the time and probably have neither the time nor the desire to spend money on psychiatry, I never read that as the author's way of taking moral judgment away from the reader. If anything, I interpreted it as the author being willing to introduce bad authority into her fictional world. Considering Uncle Al's motives and his disregard for Marlena's wellfare, I just assumed it was his attempt to excuse August's temper and sadism by slapping a medical term onto it. Jacob's acceptance and later reference to Uncle Al's claim seemed in keeping with Jacob's naivete and tendency to take things at face value.

message 17: by Kevin (new) - rated it 1 star

Kevin Hi Siyuan,

Thank you very much for your comment. I had taken Uncle Al's comment about schizophrenia at face value - as the author's way of introducing information about August that wouldn't be available to her first-person narrator. Your (more generous) reading seems very reasonable and adds some complexity to the work for which I wasn't giving credit. Thanks for a different point of view - it has me reconsidering at least one of my criticisms.

Pearlie Your review made me laugh. Thanks.

message 19: by Mirian (new)

Mirian I had been debating whether or not to read WFE. It was popping up every where as a modern classic, however I couldn't relate to the tastes of anyone who loved it. Your review expressed exactly what I feared about it. (Politically correct characters representing all that's good; Anything less makes you evil; An affair is totally acceptable if one party's spouse is crazy.) So I won't waist my time. Thanks!

message 20: by [deleted user] (new)

My thoughts exactly.

message 21: by Kevin (new) - rated it 1 star

Kevin Lauren - You're welcome! I'm glad that you enjoyed the review.

Mirian - I suspect that if you have your doubts about the book (and the people recommending it), then you won't like it at all. Go read something better!

message 22: by Rian (new) - rated it 2 stars

Rian I wholeheartedly agree. The endless stream of platitudes and moral lessons through Gruen's increasingly preachy narrator -- I was particularly bothered by his use of the word "violated" re: a roustabout looking up a woman's dress in the big top; I'm no feminist historian, but I don't think that jargon, let alone that mentality, was so pervasive as to affect a smalltown vet-in-training with no history of strong females or abuse against women in his life -- made the last third of the book hard to swallow. I genuinely liked it up until it became all about saving Marlena from her abusive husband, because apparently this strong and feisty and passionate and beautiful woman is incapable of doing that without his help.

Good Lord, I will stop myself before I go off on a rant, though. Nice to see I'm not the only one who found this book unenjoyable!

Patty This book is over-rated. You summed up its flaws very well. Thanks!

message 24: by Yilda (new)

Yilda Okay..good I am not the only one. I started to read this book then roughly midway, I became disinterested. I thought it would get my attention. The first chapters it did, then it all went downhill for me.

message 25: by Jenny (new) - rated it 1 star

Jenny YES. I was about to write a review of this book but was stopped when I read that you'd already said what I'd wanted to. The sickening sweet flatness of the protagonist and his beautiful victim of a sweetheart actually made me angry. I can't remember another time when I was so irritated by a novel's characters. A friend recommended it to me after I read and loved The Circus in Winter - how little they have in common.

message 26: by Mark (last edited Apr 30, 2010 12:09AM) (new)

Mark Words cannot express how much I HATED this book. I think the main problem was that of a female author trying to write a book in the first person from a male perspective. By the end of the book, I hated the hero Jacob so much that I wished he was the one getting his brains bashed in by Rosie (or was it really Marlena as implied in the forward). What a P*#@Y. Besides, that, there was the aweful melodrama and, in my opinion, terrible writing. It reads more like a screenplay than a novel (too many things irrelevant to the plot are described in too much detail, as if setting the scene for a movie).
I was also exceedingly disappointed that I never learned what the significance of the title was supposed to be. In the beginning when the old attorney says that he "carried water for elephants" and Jacob goes NUTS on him calling him a liar: Well I was certain that eventually the author would explain exactly how someone who says that he "carried water for the elephants" was necessary lying. That never happened. AND THE ENDING!!! Utter nonsense. You think old Charlie is really going to travel around the country changing Jacob's diapers. Really!!!???
It was, however, an interesting story and I thought throughout that it would make a good movie.

Lynnie I appreciate your thoughtful comments but I can't agree with most of what you wrote, as I LOVED this book and felt that while it was bigger than life at times, I enjoyed every moment. The kid was barely done with vet school, not a seasoned vet, so his inability to handle putting down the horse makes sense. The Depression era was a tragic, dismal time for many and led many people to behave in desperate ways, but why is it so hard to believe that someone could care about others at that time? Read Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning and you will see the humanity shine through the worst of environments. The ending was a bit silly but it was hopeful, the guy didn't have to live the end of his days in an old folks home. It's a fairy tale! Are we that cynical that for the time we were immersed between the pages, we can't take pleasure in good conquering evil, and an elephant saving the day, despite its lack of realism?

message 28: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy Cox Lynnie, I agree with you, except that I wont say I loved the book but I enjoyed it.

Lynnie Thanks Judy!

message 30: by Lisa (new)

Lisa I feel so validated - phew! I tried so hard to get into this book with the expectation that I wouldn't be able to put it down. After reading about 50 pages, I came to the realization that I just couldn't get into it. I was wondering what all the hype was about but I feel better knowing that it wasn't just me.

Daniel I agree with parts 1, 3, and 4 for the most part. To risk coming off terribly sexist, the 4th point points me in the direction of acknowledgement of this book sounding like it's been written by a woman. Not a bad thing, but the narrative seems telling of this fact and, in turn, the story suffers from the one-dimensionality as you point out in point 4. Don't misread me; I love many of the books I have read by female authors, but most of them have, when its suitable, rendered a book in which their sex is invisible.

Last, I read this book on recommendation from the fact I love all hell out of "Geek Love" by Katherine Dunn. Read that, too, if you really enjoy this, or even if you didn't.

message 32: by Erich (new) - rated it 1 star

Erich Sysak Well said. What a disappointment. I guess the big publishers somehow overcome the obviously poor quality, but how?

Carla I'm quite interesting by all the negative reviews, I'm quite enjoying this book (the circus part more so then the romance), though can understand why some people don't and you've got some very good points here. And it's nice to see reviews that are in depth about why someone doesn't recommend a book.

The only thing I really disagree with is that the old man doesn't sound like an old man...I use to work around a majority of elderly people and a lot of the older men sounded pretty much the way he does. And it is a fictional book so some of the over the top moments were expected for me.

message 34: by Mollie (new)

Mollie thank you for saving me from reading this tripe. i was intrigued by the circus, but something about it triggered my warning buzzer for sappy romance. glad i checked before purchasing.

Melanie Your review was extremely thorough and made me laugh in parts.

message 36: by Emma (new)

Emma I've been tossing up whether or not to bother reading this book...and I have to thank you for your review. I don't think I'll bother now ;)

Sarah I wholeheartedly agree with your points. There's romance and then there's dreaded melodrama. This is melodrama all the way.

Kashi I definitely had issues with the end, but some of your points I disagree with. A lot of medical professionals go into their line of work for the first time and have a very hard time dealing with death. It's not like he was a seasoned veterinarian. He didn't even pass his exams and he just recently lost his whole family.

And as odd as the whole shebang is, several of the circus stories REALLY did happen, including the elephant murdering his trainer. I didn't think the stories were far-fetched. I've heard other seedy stories of traveling circuses.

Someone else commented on the paranoid schizo diagnosis by Uncle Al, but knowing Uncle Al and everyone else close to him, who would believe that? He didn't seem ill by that definition. If anything, maybe bi-polar.

However, I agree with several of your thoughts also. So many do good be good lessons and the whiny old man in the nursing home, I had a tough time with. I also didn't much care for the Hallmark ending. All in all I thought the book was good, but there was room for better character development and there was most certainly room to rethink the ending.

message 39: by Amy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Amy with regards to your point number 2, I felt that although Jacob is a nice guy, that it was more tbat the author waas trying to get across that was naive, and provide stark contrast between him and the "lower class" non-mainstream circus folks... that and that he was sick over putting down the horse because of how Marlena felt about the horse, and how he felt about Marlena, rather than having to put it down.

message 40: by Mic (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mic "At the end of the 1930s storyline, following a deadly stampede in which the villain is murdered (yes, murdered) by an elephant (yes, an elephant), the narrator marries the girl (thus rescuing her from an abusive relationship)"

The "review" is a load of pseudo-intellectual rubbish, but I'd point out that the murder of the villain (yes, the villain) by the elephant (yes, the elephant) resucued the girl (yes, the girl) from the abusive relationship (yes, the abusive relationship). You know, on account of the villain (yes, the villain) being dead (yes, dead), which is something that tends to terminate most relationships.

Jessmg7 I agree with your review. I do have to say that the first few chapters were the ones I enjoyed the most.

message 42: by Begona (new)

Begona Fernandez Ok. Not in to read list anymore then

Chelsea Okay, I agree with pretty much all of this review, however, "(yes, murdered) by an elephant (yes, an elephant)" Rosie's character was pretty much the most believable one to me and you think it's weird that she murdered her abuser? Elephants are some of the smartest - and, um, BIGGEST - animals on the planet, and August's character was torturing this animal - trained though she may have been, a WILD animal - throughout the entirety of the book. Why the hell wouldn't she take an opportunity to harm him as much as possible and escape, as ANY animal (wild or not) would do in a threatening situation? Also, that part was incredibly satisfying to read. Yes the other characters were flat and predictable, but August was still an asshole, he got what was coming to him and it was awesome.

Kelli I am in complete agreement with your first point. I never felt that they were authentically in the 1930’s. In my review, I said that I felt that I was reading about actors acting out a story rather than authentic characters in the story. Parts of the dialog just did not seem to fit. I did wonder however if writers might make the reverse mistake in applying an overly formal dialog simply because they are writing a period piece.

message 45: by Melly (new)

Melly I have to disagree, as a book about the circus, i thought it was interesting, it's not exactly 5 star but i personally don't think it was 1 star, everyone imagines a story differently so i understand not alot of people could of invisioned 1930s. I didn't like the parts where it went back to the old man in the old people's home, because i found it dull and was so sucked into the circus storyline, i just wanted to ready one story rather than two. I passed the book onto my mum and she found it interesting also, but i haven't read nearly enough books to be a critic, i just wanted to voice a slightly more positive opinion as alot have seemed to be rather negative but as i also say each to their own, everyone's likes and dislike and opinions differ. Good read but wasn't interested in the old mans life however the ending was good and made me smile to see the old man back where he had been working for the majorly of his life.

Meghan I completely disagree. The plot was interesting and it was a beautiful story. Everyone I know who has read it loves the story. I'm sorry but I wholeheartedly can tell you I love this book and every word in it. There wasn't one point that I didn't like it.

message 47: by Demetrius (new)

Demetrius Sherman Kevin wrote: "Danielo,
Thank you very much for your comment! WFE was a book that I felt started fine enough, but seemed to quickly get out of control. Based on its popular reception, however, our opinion seems t..."

I usually give one star to something horribly bad (if it had said that killing and hating was fun for example) Was it so bad it merited one star with no redeeming qualities?

message 48: by Silas (new) - rated it 1 star

Silas Hall Like you, I wanted to enjoy this book. Many of my friends who do not read books often were raving about this, but after I read it I was disappointed for the exact reasons you mentioned. I haven't read through all of the feedback on your review and I would like to add on to what you commented on in regards to the characters' one-demential quality. The antagonist was given a reason for his cruelty. It was specifically handed to the reader and I couldn't even enjoy trying to figure out what could be the cause.

I am happy the book excited some of my friends and now they are reading more, so there's a plus.

message 49: by Adam (new)

Adam Gottbetter This book disappointed me too. Adam Gottbetter

Carrie Arick I truly wanted to love this book, but I was never able to buy into the narratpror/main character from the onset, probably because of you first point.

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