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Water for Elephants

Updated: Dec 19, 2021

Have you ever had a book that just seems to pop up everywhere? I'm talking about those books that seem to be in the hand of your best friend, read by your boss, raved about by that random acquaintance, and loved by everyone. These are the books that are all over social media, that seem to be in every bookshop everywhere, and that you just cannot get out of your head.

Water for Elephants was one of those books for me. I had seen it on social media a number of times. It had been suggested to my Goodreads account over and over again. A year or so ago, it seemed to be the "in" book and was absolutely everywhere. I had numerous friends (or at least acquaintances) recommend it.

But the first time I saw it in the library book sale, I left it there.

You see, even after all the hype about Water for Elephants, I had absolutely no idea what the book was about. I mean, I assumed there was an elephant involved. It seemed as though there was maybe a circus (given the cover)? But that was about all I could infer. The paperback book did not have a blurb on the back (the back was instead covered in quotes from newspapers who raved about the book). Maybe some people like to know that "People" thought it was "rich...emotional" but all I care about is the actual storyline.

Convince me that I will find it "rich" and "emotional."

Despite turning the book down on that first library book sale, I did decide to buy it at another book sale and after looking the blurb up online, I decided to read it.

In case your copy of Water for Elephants is also missing the blurb, this is what it says:

"When Jacob Jankowski, recently orphaned and suddenly adrift, jumps onto a passing train, he enters a world of freaks, drifters, and misfits, a second-rate circus struggling to survive during the Great Depression, making one-night stands in town after endless town. A veterinary student who almost earned his degree, Jacob is put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It is there that he meets Marlena, the beautiful young star of the equestrian act, who is married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. He also meets Rosie, an elephant who seems untrainable until he discovers a way to reach her."

Upon reading Water for Elephants, you immediately discover why a movie was made from the novel. The book is written almost as if it already is a movie. I don't mean it is written like a script but rather it simply has the dramatic feel of a movie.

That being said, Water for Elephants is almost perfectly a cross between (the movies) The Notebook and The Greatest Showman set in the 1930s with the Great Depression being one of the largest conflicts in the book. The book is heartbreaking, sweet, and written well enough that I can almost hear the animals, smell the hay, and taste the lemonade and popcorn (I'm allergic to peanuts so I'll pass on those!).

What makes Water for Elephants unique is the way it jumps back and forth between the past (set in the 1930s) and the present. This is what makes it similar to The Notebook as, in the present, Jacob Jankowski, our main character is an old man beginning to forget things and lose control of his body. In the present age, we are presented with Jacob's frustration over losing control of his body and his ability to do the things he wants to do (as opposed to what his doctors and nurses want him to do).

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD (skip the following paragraphs to avoid spoilers)

The difficulty reading this book was reading these sections with the older Jacob. At first, I did not understand why the sections were there. They did not seem to add to the story at all. Where The Notebook shows the two lovers together in old age and the struggle of the man reminding his wife who he is (and that he loves her), Water for Elephants presents Jacob as an old man alone. His children have abandoned him to the nursing home. His wife has died. And the single nurse who cares for him well is about to leave the nursing home. Reading these sections becomes harder and harder as they progressively become sadder and sadder and any reader who has watched The Notebook begins to wonder "Is this all for the purpose of killing the old man off at the end? What's the point in that?"

I noted that there were spoilers ahead because I do want to clarify for anyone considering reading the book that it is not a depressing book. I do not wish to spoil books and do my best to avoid doing so in my reviews but this one time I must break my own rules to assure my readers of this.

I did cry at the end of Water for Elephants but I did not do so because of the death of Jacob. I will leave it at that.


As for the movie of the book, I found it to be an interesting twist on the book. While large portions of the movie did stay true to the book, the movie's directors made an interesting choice in their adaption of the book: they removed one of the main characters all together.

In Water for Elephants (the book), we meet Jacob Jankowski, an uncertified vet who has lost everything and climbs aboard a circus train accidentally. He is taken on by Camel who then helps him to find a job with Uncle Al who runs the circus. The job he finds is as the circus vet which means he is working under August a man with a mental disorder causing him to be violently mad at times. August is the head of the menagerie and husband to Marlena who Jacob begins to take a liking to (this, the "untrainable" elephant, and the depression are the main conflicts of the novel).

In the movie, Uncle Al is removed. For the most part, this makes sense as the movie's creators place August in charge overall and any violent acts that Uncle Al did in the book are then completed by August in the movie. However, this does cause some problems for the creators in the end of the movie forcing them to speed the end up quite a bit making it feel rushed.

On top of this, the past timeline in the movie is largely cut out. While it does make sense for the most part (I didn't know why it was there for a large portion of the book), it takes away from the beauty of the ending. I cried at the ending of the book but not at the ending of the movie. Though the endings were the same, the lead-ups were different and this took away from the movie's ending.

My final note on the Water for Elephants movie is that they got rid of one of my favorite characters: Bobo the monkey.

Still, I would recommend both the movie and the book for fans of drama, historical fiction, and romance. It is not only a good first read in any of these genres but it is a good combination of them all and written in such a beautiful way. I so enjoyed the book and found myself incredibly glad I was the owner of said book multiple times throughout reading it.

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