The amazon.com product description:
An atmospheric, gritty, and compelling novel of star-crossed lovers, set in the circus world circa 1932, by the bestselling author of Riding Lessons.Water For Elephants is one of those books that everyone`s been telling me to read for the last couple of years. I gave it a brief try a year or so ago, but didn't get very far that time. This time though, I couldn't put the book down at all.
When Jacob Jankowski, recently orphaned and suddenly adrift, jumps onto a passing train, he enters a world of freaks, drifters, 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.
Beautifully written, Water for Elephants is illuminated by a wonderful sense of time and place. It tells a story of a love between two people that overcomes incredible odds in a world in which even love is a luxury that few can afford.
The perspective of the book is neat, alternating between chapters set in the modern day, and chapters where Jacob (and therefore us) is in the circus. The first time I was reading the book, I found that a bit jarring. This time though, I found it worked, and worked really well. He really didn't have much to do anymore but remember, and we're taken along for that ride.
There are times when this book is violent and graphic, but that just adds to the colour of the time and the details of what the other characters were like. In my opinion, none of it was gratuitous and all of it fit, as unpleasant as that was.
What a tangle of interpersonal relationships made up the cast of The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth as it was crumbling into it's end days. And all of those characters are fully fleshed out and real. There's Marlena, the star of the equestrian act, Walter, the dwarf who's main focus is his little dog Queenie, Camel, August, Marlena's husband, who's also the man who got Jacob the job he had and we can't forget Uncle Al, the circus owner. But not all of them are quite as they seem. And, the animals are almost characters themselves - the chimps, horses, bear, and all of the others. We can't forget about Rosie the elephant either. She's definitely a personality!
According to the author's note at the end of the book, Sara Gruen has used a variety of actual incidents and personalities from the 1930's circus world to make up the book Water for Elephants. She's certainly left me intrigued by the world she depicts!
One of the things though that really made the book work for me was the use of archival circus photos at the beginnings of many of the chapters. Water For Elephants is only the second novel I've read that did that. The other one was The Day The Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchannan.
Water for Elephants is definitely a book I'd recommend. Thanks everyone for recommending it to me. Now to see the movie too, and see how that compares.