Water for Elephants - Sara Gruen, John Randolph Jones, David LeDoux "Is where you're from the place you're leaving or where you have roots?"
Jacob Jankowski is a young man, studying to be a vet at Cornell. When both of his parents die in a car accident, Jacob is so torn up, he runs away in the middle of his final exams and joins up on a circus train, the Benzini Brothers' Most Spectacular Show on Earth. His life in the Depression era on a traveling circus are intercut with the present day, 90-something year old Jacob reminiscing about the past and dealing with one of the most difficult obstacles: life.

I Liked:
With the movie due to appear in theaters soon and the recommendation from a friend, I decided to hunt down an audiobook and listen. And, in short, am I glad.
Before I started reading, I thought (based on either the blurb on the back cover and the movie trailer) that the book was a love story dressed up in circus costumes in the vein of James Cameron's "Titanic". Poor boy meets wealthy attached (married) girl, both fall in love, blah, blah, blah. Throw in some random animals, circus acts, and there you go.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that this wasn't the case. The characters were beautifully drawn and real, from our protagonist and narrator, Jacob, to his bunkmate, Kinko/Walter, to our love interest, Marlena, to our antagonist, Big Al. The story focuses more on the circus life than on the love between Marlena and Jacob. The setting was beautiful and intricate, the ambience was spectacular and grotesque (sometimes at the same time!), and I truly felt transported back into the past. Not to mention, there were many tearjerker moments--real, emotional moments, not those written just to elicit a pornographic emotional response.
Jacob was a good narrator. I felt his pain as his parents died, I understood his awe at Rosie, I felt his disgust at August's disgusting behavior. But my favorite character was Marlena, and I can definitely see why Reese Witherspoon was cast as her. She is spunky, fun, mature, and spirited. My heart broke hearing how her family abandoned her just because she married a Jew (she was Catholic), and I hated how August treated her. Walter was also another great character. It was terrible how his mother basically sold him to the circus just because of his dwarfism. And the scene where he almost loses Queenie really brought home how alone and lonely this poor guy was.
So many novels these days seem to be window dressing for a love story, but this novel isn't one of them. Sure, a cornerstone of the novel is about Marlena and Jacob, but there is much more going on. A man's journey into coping with death. The horrors of the circus. How hard life was back in the Depression. Escapism. The trials of growing older. The need to belong. The story deftly wove back and forth between younger and older Jacob, and I found myself interested in BOTH sides, not just one or the other.

I Didn't Like:
In places, the novel is very graphic. I didn't care for when Jacob barged in on someone AHEMing or hearing about the two ladies AHEMing Jacob.
I would have liked to have seen a little more of the acts that went on in the circus, though I suppose those would work better in a visual medium.

Dialogue/Sexual Situations/Violence:
A few f-bombs, amongst milder profanities.
Jacob is interested in losing his virginity. While drunk, two women try to perform sexual acts on him, but Jacob vomits on one. Two characters make love; "self love" is shown once or twice.
The story opens with a character about to be impaled. Camel is crippled because of his drinking. August is abusive to his animals and to others. Workers have been thrown off the train, a practice called "red lighting".

This is an impressive book, one that totally bucked all my prejudices and preconceived notions. It was able to do what a lot of books can't: make me care about the characters and take me to another "world". I only hope that the movie, when it comes out, can do it justice. Highly recommended.