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Title: Water For Elephants
Author: Sara Gruen

Summary: The novel, told in flashback by nonagenarian Jacob Jankowski, recounts the wild and wonderful period he spent with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a traveling circus he joined during the Great Depression. When 23-year-old Jankowski learns that his parents have been killed in a car crash, leaving him penniless, he drops out of Cornell veterinary school and parlays his expertise with animals into a job with the circus, where he cares for a menagerie of exotic creatures. He also falls in love with Marlena, one of the show's star performers — a romance complicated by Marlena's husband, the unbalanced, sadistic circus boss who beats both his wife and the animals Jankowski cares for.

1. How does the Prologue foreshadow what's to come? Were you pulled into the story?

2. Is Jacob a reliable narrator? What might lead you to think that he is/isn't? Do you think that the telling of the story by the elderly Jacob detracts from the book?

3. Why does Gruen call her novel Water For Elephants?

4. Gruen frequently uses humor in the novel, despite the rather ugliness of 1930's circus life. Cite some examples.

5. August says of the circus, " The whole thing's illusion, Jacob...there's nothing wrong with that. It's what people want from us. It's what they expect." How are the worlds of reality and illusion contrasted in the novel? Is there anything wrong with pandering to people's illusions?

6. The elderly Jacob, reflecting on his appearance in the mirror, asks, " When did I stop being myself?" How would you answer that for Jacob or anyone else? How does Gruen handle the voice and character of the elderly Jacob?

7. How does Jacob feel about August's seemingly new-and-improved relationship with Rosie once he teaches him the necessary Polish words?

8. How did you react to Uncle Al's redlighting of Walter, Camel and the others? Did you expect it?

9. We've all heard about the so-called glamour of running away to join the circus. How did this well-researched novel change your opinion?

10. The 1930' s circus appears to be a microcosm of society in general. In what ways is this similarity apparent?

11. Jacob finds a friend in Rosemary at the home. How real is she? How does his relationship with her parallel other relationships in his life?

12. Define Marlena and August's relationship. How would you characterize Marlena throughout the novel? How do your feelings for Marlena change once you learn her background?

13. Why do you think circuses even survived during the Depression?

14. Why doesn’t Jacob go through with killing August?

15. Why is Jacob's trek to the circus from the home believable? Is this too much like a fairy-tale ending or all part of the illusion we all desire? Another possible reading of the ending might be that Jacob simply and finally crossed the line into dementia. What do you think of this?

Related Information:

Interview with Sara Gruen - Reading Group Guides

The Big Tent: The Traveling Circus in Georgia 1820-1930

Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey's Greatest Show on Earth

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals - Circuses

Discussion questions provided by Rosanne Melita, Susannah Risley, and Marilyn Day.

This discussion guide made possible with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a State Agency. Sponsored by the Mohawk Valley Library System and participating member libraries.

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