Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Share this article

This week Book Group welcomed a special guest – Lisa Highton, commissioning editor of Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, published by her new imprint Two Roads.

Lisa joined in their discussion about the book and gave them a fascinating insight behind the scenes in the publishing world.

Water for Elephants is the Depression-era tale of Jacob Jankowski, a young vet student recently orphaned and suddenly adrift, who jumps onto a passing train and enters a wonder of freaks, grifters and misfits. 

The Benzini Brothers’ most spectacular show on earth is a second-rate travelling circus struggling to survive, making one night stands in town after endless town.

Jacob is put in charge of the circus menagerie and it’s there he meets Marlena the beautiful young star of the equestrian act, August her dominating husband and circus trainer, and Rosie, the circus elephant only Jacob can reach.

Pauline: Can I ingratiate myself immediately and say that I loved it!

Jean: It was just enchanting really, I liked the way it was written with the old man looking back.

Marion: The generation empathy was brilliant, caring for an elderly father I could relate to so much, and yet the youth was there.

Lisa: I remember when I first read it, it was the really touching scene of him waiting, I started crying at that point.

Val (to Lisa): Tell us more about Sara Gruen, she has the detail so brilliantly ...

Lisa: Sara had written a couple of novels before, both with an equestrian theme, neither was hugely successful.

While doing research, she came across information about the Ringling Circus, and some fantastic posters of the 1930s circus life.

To travel on a train in the midst of the depression – all life was there, from stars and celebs to the homeless and those on the run. There is a wonderful book published by Tachen – Lost Photos of the Circus – which shows what it was really like in another world. She found that many of the runaways had an average age of 19 – from that moment the character of Jacob arrived.

Jean: I have to ask, why the green dress on the front cover when she always wore pink?

Lisa: That was me – I originally published it with a different jacket showing circus scene – it didn’t really sell, whereas once we put the beautiful performing woman on the cover, it really began to sell. There are numerous editions worldwide, but the bestseller is the girl in a green dress. Believe it or not, this is the first time anyone has questioned why green, not pink.

Linda: I thought the film tie in jacket was off-putting.

Lisa: But the tie-in did get it really selling.

Val: I thought it was slightly formulaic as a researched book, written, I found it slightly sentimental.

Greta: I found myself thinking of the parallels between the people in the care home and the animals – both depending on other people.

Linda: It seemed very authentic to me, but I thought the circus elements were almost fantasy, they didn’t seem so real to me.

Jan: I thought some of the main characters didn’t come alive for me, perhaps the secondary ones were in some ways more real. Is it popular with teenage girls?

Lisa: Not really, it’s core book group market in the States – along with the likes of Poisonwood Bible, A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Kite Runner. I think that a lot of people like the circus aspect of it and enjoy seeing into another world. The film producers attached Robert Pattinson to the movie and he brought a whole new audience. The film conflated certain characters – August became the single baddie.

Anthea: I thought the ending was very appropriate, I almost liked it the most.

Jan: Perhaps she needs to write a book about old people – I loved how she worked those scenes.

Lisa: Sara is a Canadian with American citizenship, she has three boys, a husband and lots of animals. She’s a very big animal rights activist and all her books (including the next one), have animals in them. It’s sometimes a burden to have this much success early on.

Her next book is a book called Ape House, a quite different story. A group of apes become language competent and are liberated and sold onto a reality TV show like Big Brother. The story is a scientist’s fight to get them back with a love story thrown in. It’s as much to mull on humans believing they know more and are better, than animals.

Jan (to Lisa): Did you have trouble persuading your company to buy Water for Elephants?

Lisa: When I bought it for the UK, it had only just been published in the US so I just had to say trust me.

Anthea (to Lisa): Do you think there is a type for book groups?

Lisa: I think it all comes back to story, people often like to find out about new things within the context. The extra value for a discussion needs more than simply story.

Maureen: I wouldn’t have picked this one, I didn’t know the author. But I’m glad I did – I was fascinated with the context, I loved seeing the different characters affected by the economic circumstances. The cruelty was in part due to the times. There was a very clear class system.

Lisa: It was a capitalist society in miniature, very cruel.

Jane: Yes, it was astonishing that even some who had been ‘red lighted’ actually came back because the other option was worse.

Pauline: They were effectively nameless in any case, they had no other option.

Greta: Food seemed an important theme – mostly the lack – both in the circus and in the care home.

Lisa: It’s the same time that Steinbeck was writing, people were just on the road, desperate for food and work. Out of such times often comes great story.

Jean: It makes sense that the circus should flourish amid depression, it’s escapism.

Anthea: Yes, a bit like now with Strictly Come Dancing!

z Book Group meets at The Mainstreet Trading Company in St Boswells. The next meeting is on November 9 at 11am and they are reading Aphrodite’s Hat by Salley Vickers. For further information, please visit www.mainstreetbooks or telephone 01835 824087.