Now THIS was a book!! Water for Elephants is definitely in this year's top five favorite books. Gruen captures the setting of the 1930s, post-crash circus world brilliantly. The story itself could be called somewhat pedestrian at times (it is a love story), but the twists and additions Gruen includes make the characters so lively I didn't mind that I knew what was happening. At the end of the day--and the end of the book--I didn't have a clue what was coming, which is really what matters.
As a writer, I am in full awe at one of Gruen's choices. The novel opens with a prologue in past tense. This prologue is mirrored in one of the final chapters, in present tense, at a point that I had forgotten the prologue existed. She wrote the scene essentially twice, using the dialogue as a foundation, and showed details that were both the same and different. She had me flipping back and forth between the two in the midst of the climax of the book absolutely rapt.
This is a novel I would someday like to write. Unlike McCarthy's The Road or King's (Bachman's) Blaze, I finished this book thinking "Yes, I could do this." Not because the novel was easy, but because Gruen made it LOOK easy with her style and her unbelievable attention to detail. I can't imagine anyone not enjoying this book, but I think that writers will get a certain plug out of it--it is still possible to write a good, traditional story; use quotation marks; flip back and forth between time periods, all the things that "good" writing books say is going out of style. Gruen's novel, Water for Elephants, is timeless.