I first read Water For Elephants, by Sara Gruen, in 2009. It is a powerful, dynamic, and hopeful story. If you have only seen the movie, you have missed a great deal of the texture and subtlety of the novel.
The novel is structured as a frame story in which Jacob, the viewpoint character, in a nursing home, recovering from a broken hip. He is cranky, and a little forgetful. A circus is in town, and he is looking forward to the weekend, when someone from his family will visit, and take him to the circus.
In flashbacks, we see his first few months with a circus in his youth, during the Great Depression, as an impoverished veterinary student. He falls in love with an unavailable woman, he learns how cruel people can really be, how deep true friendship runs, and how easily even the best of us can be pushed by passion to violence and despair.
In the end, redemption from an unexpected source comes in the midst of cruel revenge gone beyond reason.
The book is gritty, as you might expect from a circus book set in the Great Depression. Not recommended for children or younger teenagers, but adults will be moved by the deep emotional honesty, remembering the burning, self-centered transition from youth to adult. It shows the bittersweet difference between the fantasy we all have about “adventures”, and the real hard times and fear that are the root of every adventure story.
If you like Water For Elephants, you may also like The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield.