The intriguingly titled Water for Elephants is everything a good book can be: an absolute page-turner; wonderful characters; and a well-researched, well-written plot.
The narrator Jacob Jankowski tells us the story of his time with a circus travelling the States during the Great Depression. Meanwhile, we also see him as a ninety- (or ninety-three-) year-old man in an "assisted living" home, mulling over his mortality. In both cases, I instantly felt sympathy for these Jacobs, mixed with a little horror.
The events at times are horrible, but the way it fits seamlessly with the plot and the time period--the fact that this is the Depression and people may do anything for a buck--makes it seem all the more realistic. Gruen creates a truly despicable man in the form of "Uncle Al," who cares only for maintaining and expanding his circus without regard for the wellbeing of those beneath him. Likewise, one of the book's antagonists, August the animal wrangler. A paranoid schizophrenic, August can be charming one moment and monstrous the next. His dualism generates a great deal of conflict for Jacob, who deals with it in interesting ways.
I didn't find this book at all predictable--I spent much of it trying to figure out what would happen to Walter, Jacob's dwarfish roommate. I did not foresee that outcome, but I suppose it makes sense. There was little doubt that Jacob would get a happy ending, considering the scenes of him as an old man, but he also received his share of suffering. What Gruen has wrought is a sort of "fairy tale of the Great Depression" in the most classical sense of a fairy tale--dark, sometimes disturbing, and but with a message that can be positive or cautionary.
My only quibble with Water for Elephants is the pacing at the end, which seemed to increase unnaturally. Suddenly events were flying by, the plot was advancing, and it felt somewhat artificial. Oh, I kept turning the pages--I was engaged. It just felt like the book ended too quickly, compared to the lengthy development prior to the climax. The conclusion was somewhat summary. This was jarring compared to the near-artistic perfection of the rest of the book, but it certainly didn't ruin my enjoyment.
The quotation on the back of my edition, "A sawdust-and-tinsel novel reminiscent of Robertson Davies", may be somewhat hyperbolic--I don't know if I would have compared Gruen to Robertson Davies were the quotation not in my mind as I read the book. Water for Elephants does resemble Robertson Davies in at least one respect: it is the sort of book I can recommend to anyone.