Water for Elephants

Review of Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen published by Algonquin Books

I was excited to read this book because so many people loved it. I wanted to love it, I really did, but something just fell flat. The story was good, although I found the flashing back and forth distracting, and Sara Gruen obviously did copious amounts of research, but I just couldn’t get excited about it.

The character of Marlena could have been a really interesting and multi-layered person, but instead she is really only presented as a delicate flower who loves animals, married a psychopath, and sometimes displays teenage acts of defiance. Why did Jacob love her so much? There must have been more to her than that, but the reader is never let in on that secret. It’s even more odd because the author is a woman. They had strong female personalities in the 1930s, I’m sure of it.

As for Jacob, I thought that he displayed a lot of the conflict and inner questioning that you like to see in a lead character and his development as he gets to know the people that work for the circus was enjoyable. His relationship with the animals was obviously meant to heal him after the death of his parents, but again, I felt like that connection was rushed and then brushed aside. His relationship with Rosie, the gentle and abused Polish speaking (well, Polish understanding) elephant, was an excellent metaphor for his own gentle nature and his inability to stand up for himself and break free. Of course, in the end, everyone is free thanks to Rosie and we get the happy ending.

I did not hate the book at all, but I wanted more from it. I think if the author had been allowed to write about 100 pages more, it could have been a great novel instead of just ok. The descriptions of the 1930s era circus and the care she took in researching every detail made the book very interesting. It’s certainly worth a read.

What did you think? Did you see the movie adaptation? How did it compare to the book?

Kate @ Ex Libris


69 responses to “Water for Elephants

  1. I would agree with you that Marlena fell very flat. In fact, when I read this book several years ago I remember not liking her. I didn’t get invested in her, I didn’t understand what made her so loveable. I was irritated with her most of the time. I felt like Gruen should have gone into the relationship with the animals more.

    And, I know movies are never as great as the book, but I’ve got to tell you I HATED Reese Witherspoon as Marlena and I HATED the character even more after that movie.

    I loved the story, it swept me away. But you’re right, something didn’t sit right with me after I was done. And I believe it was the Marlena character.

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