Book for November 2009
Gruen's novel, told in flashbacks 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.
Despite her often clichéd prose and the predictability of the story's ending, Gruen skillfully humanizes the midgets, drunks, rubes and freaks who populate her book.
Gruen's first two novels, Riding Lessons and Flying Changes, both enjoyed moderate critical success. Her third release, Water for Elephants, was initially turned down by her publisher at the time, Avon Books, a HarperCollins imprint, forcing Gruen to find another publisher. She interested Algonquin in the book, but they paid just $55,000 for the manuscript in 2004.
Water for Elephants spent 12 weeks on the New York Times hardcover fiction best-seller list and sold 248,000 copies. The movie rights were optioned to Andrew R. Tennenbaum, a co-producer of the Jason Bourne spy movies, in a deal worth more than $1 million if the movie is made.
Last Autumn, Gruen sold her fourth novel, Ape House, on the basis of a 12-page summary to Spiegel & Grau, who paid $5 million for Ape House and another as-yet-unnamed book.