Why Water for Elephants is One Bold Book

I like books that surprise me.  Especially when that surprise comes from the author through her ability to do research and turn it into a story you wish would never end.  Sara Gruen has done this.  The author of Water for Elephants spent about 6 months doing research at several circus museums, including Sarasota, Florida’s Ringling Museum and the Circus Museum right here in Baraboo, Wisconsin (I’m planning a visit!).  She went to the Kansas City Zoo and walked up to an animal handler and said, “Hi I’m writing a book about elephants, can I meet yours?”  She worked up the guts to get inside the secret lives of circus performers and took many of their best anecdotes for her novel.

What Gruen has produced is the life story of one polish boy becoming a man while working on a traveling circus.  The author’s note alone makes this book a great read.  Setting the story during the Great Depression, she gives the reader perspective that makes the hardships of the characters real.  Through her research, she brought in lesser known bits of history like the disease “jake leg,” a paralysis caused by drinking a toxic, cheap alcohol.  She also changed the definition of a “hobo” from the Depression era.  Rather than an old, dirty man, most of the people left in train ditches and town outskirts were young boys, orphans with no parents or available work.

So we have this book, rich in history and research, but that’s not even the part that surprised me!  Call me naive, but when I see a book that’s on the New York Times Bestseller list for so long, and all my co-workers have read the book and rave about it, I simply wasn’t expecting just how BOLD Ms. Gruen was going to be in her subject matter!  No more than halfway through the book and we’re introduced to the Lovely Lucinda in the cooch tent, a masturbating dwarf, a chemically preserved hippopotamus, a virgin who can’t hold his load, extreme animal violence, and forbidden love!  I’m so excited I could pee myself, which would probably make me fit in with this ragtag train of circus folk!

I am overjoyed and in love with this book.  Here’s why:  This is an example of where an author made bold writing choices that were supported by her research and they combined forces to make millions of readers love her and her book.  I am thrilled that this author could put some pretty risque subject matter in her book and have society like it.  You can guess I am never one to join in with a book ban; I believe people should be able to read what they want to.  And Gruen’s novel is great writing, great writing with some edgy subject matter that for once DIDN’T put the public off, but instead GOT THEM TO LIKE READING!  Thank you, Sara Gruen!  P.S., check out this photo of Sara with the film version’s elephant on her site, pretty funny!

A week ago, I went to see the film version of Water for Elephants and I really liked it!  Of course, the book is better, which is why you’ll hear me always say watch the movie first!  I mean it.  I stand by this absurd sounding trait of mine.  I watch the film first.  Seriously, if you watch the movie, you’re enjoying it as it unfolds and not spending your time going where’s that character, why did they do that, that’s not how it is in the book!  I know, I used to live like that.  Never again!  The book is always better, we know that.  So, watch the movie first, enjoy it, and then read the book.  When I follow this rule, I’m delighted by new characters that are in the book and not the film, I like the subtle, sometimes drastic plot changes, they are surprising and fun to debate which one worked better.

In this case, I do feel the book was better.  But I was very surprised at how close to the book the film version stayed.  Christoph Waltz is amazing as August, the equestrian ringleader.  He is handsome, charming, and menacing beyond belief.  Great antagonist.  But reading the book gives you a better understanding of how Gruen webbed together two antagonists to play off of each other, August and Uncle Al, the show’s leader.  Neither man synchs up with the other which creates multiple points of conflict all worthwhile!

If you haven’t already read this book, I highly recommend it!  It’s an enjoyable, exciting read.  For those that like to research the topic you’re reading about, you won’t be disappointed.  If you like to dissect characters and are looking for some teeth sinking, juicy ones for your next book club, this title has plenty!   And for those of you, like me, with book lists a mile long to get to, you can watch the movie first, because it will make you want to read the book!  🙂

20 responses

  1. Wow. A great recommendation. And I love how you go against the grain and watch the movie first.

    I really enjoyed the book, but didn’t love the ending. I don’t want to spoil it for others, so I’ll leave it at that. I haven’t seen the movie; I don’t see many movies these days. Sigh.

    Happy Monday, Jess!

    1. Jess Witkins | Reply

      Hmm, the ending, I can’t give anything away either, but I see people loving or hating it. I didn’t even go into this topic, but one of the interviews I read with the author examined how she portrayed the elderly in her book and a lot of people raved at the depth in character she gave them. I certainly agree with that. She is calm and real and understanding about their emotions and those that work closely with them, mainly the scenes in the assisted living home. She gives them life, and also shows how their idea of life has changed, from schedules to food to name calling in the cafeteria!

  2. I like your backwards approach to seeing movies before reading books. Interesting take…and it makes perfect sense! I’ve done neither with “Water For Elephants.” I may indeed pick up the book someday, but as for the movie, I just can’t get past the fact that Robert Pattinson is in it.

    …because I’m totally Team Jacob!!…

    Yeah, I kid. Not a Twilight fan. But I do like a good story.

    1. Jess Witkins | Reply

      I thought he did a good job in the film. But the stand out character is Christoph Waltz. I loved him in Inglorious Basterds, I love him (or love to hate him) in Water for Elephants. If he gets nominated for an Oscar, I’d be thrilled, but this isn’t the time for the Oscar noms sadly.

  3. If I hadn’t already read this book, your recommendation would definitely make me want to read it. As it is, I HAVE already read it and completely agree with your assessment. I adored Water for Elephants so much that I went out right after I finished it and bought Riding Lessons and Flying Changes, both of which were also very good (though more romance heavy). Of the three, Water for Elephants is definitely my favorite – partly because I love the historical elements (whereas Riding Lessons and Flying Changes are both present-day), and partly because while the romance is obviously an important part of Water for Elephants it isn’t the SOLE focus of the plot, as it kind-of is for the other two. I don’t mind romance plot-lines, but I prefer having some other plot-line intertwined with it.

    I haven’t read Sara Gruen’s newest book, Ape House, yet, but I’m definitely planning on it. However, I haven’t seen the movie because I really don’t like Robert Pattinson (I’m sorry to his fans…) and I haven’t heard any really good reviews of the movie. So, do you think the movie is worth it, especially having read the book first?

    1. Jess Witkins | Reply

      Well, you make a hard choice here. After reading the book, especially one you like so much, it’s hard to really love the movie too. Hence my spinning the two around. I thought the film stayed very true to the book, so you shouldn’t be disappointed in any missing scenes or plot changes. The main difference I noticed is that in the film, Uncle Al’s character is downplayed. He’s referenced, but not too often on screen. Much of the antagonist role is portrayed by August and the film did a great job of making him appear charming then malevolent, a good guy, an insanely cruel guy.

      As for Pattinson, I admit, I like the Twilight series, for its story. It isn’t well written, but its a good story. I’ve seen the film Remember Me and now Water for Elephants with him in it and I think he does a good job. He makes sense to me as Jacob. But again, Christoph Waltz steals the acting award for his portrayal of August. Just amazing!

    2. Hmm… I’m usually pretty good about separating the book from the movie (though not always). And I’m definitely curious about this movie… Maybe I’ll be able to swallow my dislike for Robert Pattinson long enough to give it a shot… Maybe…

      1. Just go see it for the elephant! C’mon! She’s awesome!

  4. Thanks for writing this Jess. I’ve yet to read the book, though I have heard good things about it. Once I found out they were making it into a movie and Robert Pattinson was staring in the movie …. well, I pretty much turned my back on the book entirely. No offense to RP or Twilight fans, I was just tired of the constant Twi push.

    Having read your review, my interest is once again tweaked in the book. Book it is; I’ll skip the movie, at least for awhile.

    1. Jess Witkins | Reply

      You won’t be disappointed! It’s a phenomenal read, and I didn’t even mention the awesome photos Gruen has before each chapter! They’re all archives from the Ringling Museum mostly. Really cool to see photos; they help transport you to the scene. I loved that.

  5. Thanks for a great review. I’ll add it to my list of books to read and movies to see. You got a cackle out of me with “I’m so excited I could pee myself, which would probably make me fit in with this ragtag train of circus folk!”

    1. Hey! Welcome back, Madge! Can’t wait to hear how your writer’s retreat went!

  6. I loved the book, but probably will not pay money to see the movie (lousy reviews and RP, who my 16-year-old swoons over…gag!).

    I was pleased to see Gruen including the grittier elements in the story too…


    1. Wow, so many RP haters. I like him. His roles in the films Remember Me and Water for Elephants are good in my opinion. But the acting award definitely goes to Christoph Waltz, he’s superb as August!

      Gritty! Good word, good way to describe the content Gruen included. They really do add to the story.

  7. Poor RPatz. Haven’t seen the movie. Nothing against RPatz. I like him in Twilight saga but I chicken out seeing his movies (except for the twi ones). It’s like I wouldn’t wanna see it alone but can’t drag anyone with me. It’s one of those things I’ll probably watch at home. Now, if I have someone close by that I could drag with me…

    1. Finally, some back up on Robert Pattinson! Thank you Marilag! If we lived closer, I’d SO be your movie buddy! 🙂

  8. it sounds like a really interesting book and you seem really passionate about it
    you made me want to read it Jess 🙂

    1. I loved it. Definitely check it out, it’s well written and quite the story!

  9. […] I recently finished reading Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen and learned that she did some of her research at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, […]

  10. […] dipping into author’s research behind their books (need I remind you just how far I go, see here and here).  Other than her personal account, Stockett says she did interview one white woman and […]

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