Study Guide

Water for Elephants Introduction

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Water for Elephants Introduction

A circus elephant, a love story, and a Prohibition-era thriller. Now this is the stuff of bestsellers. Water for Elephants, published in 2006, is Sara Gruen's third book and her most successful to date. Ittells the story of Jacob, a young man who joins the circus and ends up falling in love with both a woman and an elephant (in different ways, thank goodness).

Shmoop loves this story so much because we get to see our protagonist at two completely different times in his life. We hear the exciting story of circus life (our take: yikes) but we also see old-man Jacob, holed up in an old folks' home, pining for his past. The back-and-forth between past and present, young and old, leads Jacob and the readers through a rollercoaster of emotions. Break out the tissues, Shmoopers.

In the years since the book was published, it's enjoyed significant success: it hit the number one spot on the New York Times Bestseller list, and the book immediately won a bunch of important awards (as bestsellers tend to do). The book also resonated with film producers, who jumped on the opportunity to make a movie out of it. In April 2011, the film Water for Elephants, starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson, was released. Eat your heart out, Twilight.

Since the book is relatively new, only time will tell how it's going to settle in the literary canon and whether it will remain as popular as it is today. Here's the thing: the public seems to like it a lot, and the film release brought it even more attention, but critics were more mixed. The New York Times' Elizabeth Judd both praises and criticizes Gruen's work: she likes the "outrageously whimsical premises" and "crowd-pleasing romanticism," but she also worries that the writing is "merely serviceable." What do you think? Give it a read, and decide for yourself.

What is Water for Elephants About and Why Should I Care?

Getting old is never easy. And in fact, if you're a young Shmooper, it might not even be on your radar. But according to Water for Elephants' Jacob, it's a slippery slope from your 20s to your 90s, and before you know it, you're old. What happened? And how do you cope when your outer self no longer matches the person you feel like inside? Hey, don't shoot the messenger: we're just passing along Jacob's thoughts on the matter.

And really, this isn't so depressing after all. The truth is, Jacob's still the same person he used to be. He may not like this new body, but it doesn't change anything inherent to his core. Sure, Water for Elephants teaches us that life passes quickly, and that we've got to seize the moment, go after what we want, and be happy. But it also teaches us that this lesson shouldn't be abandoned in old age. Want to know what we mean? Just go ahead and read the book.

Water for Elephants Resources


Real-Life Circus
Check out the Ringling Brothers' website, complete with fun-facts about elephants like Rosie.

Our Lovely Author
Learn more about Sara Gruen at her official site: the person behind this exciting story is pretty exciting herself.

Movie or TV Productions

Robert Pattinson
Did we get your attention? That's right: the 2011 film adaptation of Water for Elephants features Robert Pattinson as Jacob and Reese Witherspoon as Marlena.

Check out the Trailer
View a trailer of Water for Elephants the movie. Robbie P doesn't take his shirt off, but it's still pretty awesome.

Still curious? How about a fan site?
This comprehensive fan site has all the details you could ever want about the film.

Two Thumbs… Down?
An unfavorable movie review in the New York Times. Hey, to each his own!

Historical Documents

Interview with the Author
Check out this revealing interview with Sara Gruen, the lady behind Water for Elephants

Success Story
This New York Times article by Motoko Rich explains some of the book's success. (Beyond "it is awesome," of course.)

Mixed Review
This review by Elizabeth Judd appeared in 2006 after the book was first released. Do you agree with her assessment?

The Circus Controversy
Circus shows are surrounded by lots of controversy. Check out this article for an example.


The Audiobook
Listen to the audio version read by David LeDoux and John Randolph Jones. We wonder if it's as thrilling as the book.


But Who Plays Rosie?
Check out Tai, who played Rosie in <em>Water for Elephants. </em>She pretty much looks like the best elephant every. (And that's the author, Sara Gruen, in her mouth!)

The Original
Here's the original book cover, created by Honi Werner and based on a photo by Charles Mason.

It's Spectacular!
Here's a version of the film poster. Whatcha lookin' at, Robbie P?

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