Title: Water for Elephants
Author: Sara Gruen
Page Count: 350 pages
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Tone: Nostalgic, Romantic, Bittersweet
A novel of star-crossed lovers, set in the circus world circa 1932. When Jacob Jankowski, recently orphaned and suddenly adrift, jumps onto a passing train, he enters a world of freaks, grifters, 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.
These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.
1. What is the appeal of this novel?
2. What part do the animals play in this novel?
3. Describe Rosie and her personality traits. What is Rosie’s role in the novel? Do you think elephants can really think and act the way that she did?
4. How does Jacob’s life in the nursing home compare to the animals at the circus?
5. Why does Jacob prefer Rosemary to the other nursing home staff?
6. Did you like how the author switched back and forth between the nursing home and the circus story? Did this enhance or detract from the story?
7. Who was your favorite character? Why?
8. Who was your least favorite character? Why?
9. Upon reading the prologue, who did you think murdered August? Was the prologue an effective way to begin the story? How did that opening scene, involving chaos, make you feel about the rest of the story?
10. Describe the difference between how Jacob and August felt about Marlena. What was it about August that attracted Marlena to him. What was it about Jacob?
11. What did you learn about circuses from reading this novel? (reality and illusion) Do you like circuses? Has this novel changed the way you look at them?
12. How do the practices of the circus relate to the modern business world?
13. Would you have liked more detail on what became of Jacob, Marlena and their children? It didn’t sound like Jacob was extremely close to his children. Is that the impression you got? If so, were you surprised by that?
14. In the words of one review, Water for Elephants “explores…the pathetic grandeur of the Depression-era circus.” Do you agree? How does the “pathetic grandeur” describe the world that Gruen creates in her novel?
15. Why did Jacob get so upset at the nursing home patient, McGuinty, said he carried water for the elephants?
Lit Lovers Discussion Questions
Party Ideas for a Water for Elephants discussion
Writer’s Digest Interview with Sara Gruen
If you like Water for Elephants, you might like…
Little Heathens by Mildred Armstrong Kalish
Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand
The Adventures of Miles and Isabel by Tom Gilling