Water for Elephants written by Sara Gruen. I really enjoyed this novel, with one big fat caveat, which I'll explain in a moment.
First, let me give you a brief summary: Jacob Jankowski is a 23 year old student at Cornell University, getting ready to graduate and join his father in his veterinary practice. Tragedy strikes and Jacob's parents are killed in a car crash. With nowhere to go and no family to turn to, Jacob finds himself wandering aimlessly and jumping a train. He soon learns that this train holds the traveling Benzini Brothers Circus and Jacob soon becomes a member of the crew.
Part of the novel is told by Jacob as our narrator; the other part is told by a much older Jacob, at age 90 (or 93, he can't remember). I really enjoyed this dichotomy. The older Jacob gives a very real portrayal of life in a nursing home, sharing many touching insights with the reader. It's a really intriguing look at mind that can't help but remembering, stuck in a body that can't help not functioning as it once did. The younger Jacob's narration spares no expense in detail, and the reader is right along with him for some embarrassing episodes as he tries to find a new home among the myriad of characters and creatures of the show.
A great part of the book is dedicated to the love triangle between Jacob (the young one!), August, the Director of Equestrian Affairs (who is also the circus owner, Uncle Al's, right hand man), and August's wife Marlena, the star of the equestrian act. August is portrayed as a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde character: one minute he's smooth & charming & benevolent towards Jacob, the next he's violent and brutal and manipulative. While Marlena and Jacob steal many quick glances at one another, things don't start to heat up between the two until Jacob gives her an unexpected kiss (unexpected to both of them) when they find a moment alone.
Also in the mix is Rosie, an elephant that Uncle Al bought from an ailing show, who is expected to be the #1 attraction. However, she won't do as she is told and pays for her bad behavior dearly at the hands of the maniacal August. These are scenes that are very hard to read.
I don't want to give away too much of the plot, but I would like to mention that it is one that is well-thought-out and everything that happens seems to be a natural progression to the story. And just when you think things might slow down for Jacob or fall into place nicely, something happens to shake things up yet again. The minor characters all play a nice supportive role here and add to the ambiance of the setting and the storyline. I really hate it when an author throws in a bunch of throwaway characters just to make a busy plot, but that's not the case here at all. Things that happen to our minor characters have consequences on our major characters.
Now for that caveat I mentioned: the ending. Not young Jacob's ending, but old Jacob's. Of course, I won't tell you what happens, but I must say that it is totally unrealistic, unbelievable and improbable and not at all in line with what we've read up to that point. The ending completely ruined the story for me and I really wish the author had not gone there. It's just awful.
I originally read this novel three, maybe four, years ago, to see what all the fuss was about. And then I decided to re-read it recently because I heard that the movie based on the novel was coming out. First time, I read the paper version of the novel, this time I read it on book-on-CD. I prefer the paper version in this case, for a couple of reasons. First, I really disliked the voice that the younger narrator gave August: it's whiny and snivel-y and really goes against his character. Second, there are many, many adult scenes & language in the novel & I don't know why, but I'd rather read it on paper. Perhaps it's the fear that an innocent Bachster will stir awake and hear something they shouldn't when I'm listening to the story after their bedtime. However, I liked the old Jacob's voice and felt it gave lots of authenticity to the old Jacob portions of the book.
I'm not certain now that I want to see the movie. I'm not sure I want to see the cruelty to the animals on the screen - reading about it was hard enough. Other than that aspect, the novel is not afraid to show the gritty setting and tell the story without backing out of some of the shocking details. I've heard that the movie is a bit watered down for the general public - I certainly hope that's not what they mean by water for elephants.