Water for Elephants will make a great movie one day. I say this because it's one of those books where the story is interesting, but the writing itself is almost superfluous to the strength of the book. Oh and just to be clear, that's not a compliment.
The book has some strengths - it is absorbing, easy to read, the action is well paced, the circus details are fascinating. The characterisation of Rosie the Elephant is subtle and at times quite lovely. The minor characters are drawn reasonably well.
Now lets start with the problems, as there are quite a few.
The main problem with this novel is that it lacks depth and character development. After you've read it, sit back and ask yourself why Jacob loved Marlena? Just...cos? Exactly - Marlena is barely a character. Other than Old Jacob saying she was lovely, that's pretty much all we get. What are her personality traits, what are her strengths, who IS she? Gruen just seems to have no idea on how to actually develop a character into an interesting person.
In all honesty, Jacob suffers the same fate. Who IS he? We get a little more detail on him simply because he's the narrator, but there is no internalising at all from him, he never really tells us what he's thinking or feeling, or comments (and thus develops) the other characters.
Uncle Al and August are nothing more than exaggerated caricatures - villain fodder. It's a shame really because the book would have been far more interesting if August had of been more sympathetic, if we could understand his mood swings beyond being told he was a 'paranoid schizophrenic'.
Then there is the dialogue. It's kinda awful - no sense of the time and place, no context, and just plain useless really. The characters never say anything of any importance! Oh sure, Jacob loves Marlena, but do they ever even have a conversation of any depth?
If not for the framing of the novel between Old and Young Jacob narratives, it actually would have benefited from having a traditional narrative. This would have allowed far more insight into the other characters than we were able to get from Jacob. In fact it would have worked fine if Gruen had kept Old Jacob in first person, but allowed the true story to be told by on omniscient narrator.
The Old Jacob chapters are fairly good - I did like the insights he gave us into what it's like to grow old and not be able to really understand or accept not feeling like you, anymore. But the ending? God help me...
Ultimately the book is a fun, light hearted read. It is not great literature, won't change your life, but will keep you absorbed in the fascinating world of the circus for a few hours.