Let's get the bad stuff out of the way so I can get on with telling you why you need to read this book, like yesterday.
First, if you haven't read WATER FOR ELEPHANTS yet, SKIP THE PROLOGUE! For your own enjoyment, do not read the first 3 or 4 pages. No lie, it's the climax of the entire book. Why the author and publisher thought that beginning the book with the end of the book was a good idea I'll never understand, but it's the equivalent of SE7EN beginning with Brad Pitt shooting Kevin Spacey, or Jaye Davidson dropping his drawers in the opening scenes of THE CRYING GAME to reveal his flippety-flop and marble bag. I wished someone had warned me. Oh well, what's done is done.
If I hadn't've loved the journey Jacob Jankowski takes in this novel as much as I did, the ending-stealing-prologue would have made me want to throttle a baby panda. Luckily, the rest of WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is nearly perfect. This is the first book I've ever read where I didn't find a single error. Not one. My hat goes off to Sara Gruen's editing team. The plot is tight, almost too tight; so well plotted that the author kinda shows her hand by building the reveals. Strangely enough, this book reminded me of FRIED GREEN TOMATOES, and I'm sure you'll understand when you read it.
Sara Gruen also excels in character development. I adored every person I came across in this book. Jacob is an entertaining and sympathetic narrator. August is a true sleazeball, but, even though I hated him, I felt sorry for him, too; he really did come off as mentally unstable, which made me believe that he couldn't be held 100% responsible for his actions. Still, he got what he deserved in the end. Walter (aka Kinko) was my favorite character in the book; he's one of those supporting roles that you come to love more than the main character, at least he was for me. Barbara stood out as another strong role from a smaller member of the cast, having been so expertly drawn by the author as to be unforgettable. Uncle Al was devilish, but I could understand his motivations; he was living in the shadow of Ringling, and nobody enjoys being second best. Camel's fate was probably the saddest part of the book for me because he was the only one who had no control over what happened to him. And the list goes on and on and on... I probably feel the same way about this cast as most Potter-Heads feel about the students and staff of Hogwarts.
Lastly, I've heard nothing but bad things about the movie so I doubt I will ever sully my memory of this book's characters by watching it. I will also say that the blurb on the front of the Algonquin Paperback version is horribly misleading. The reviewer from Parade magazine couldn't have read the same book I just read. Here's the blurb: "Gritty, sensual, and charged with dark secrets involving love, murder, and a majestic, mute heroine." WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is not a dark murder mystery. Far from it. This book is beautifully written, and gives one a wistful feeling; it made this man-child want to run out and join the circus. It sure as shit was not sensual. There's two sex scenes: one involving drunken and raunchy sex, and the other concerning coitus described in laughably maudlin prose, with silly dialogue like "Let me be inside you." There is murder... kinda/sorta... but it's all off camera and soon forgotten, aside from the spoiler in the prologue. There's absolutely no mystery or secrets, but that doesn't detract from the story. And that "majestic, mute heroine" actually refers to an elephant who's only in about a quarter of the book.
In summation, this book will make you wish for the hard life of a carny as well as a pet elephant. I took half a star off for the spoiler-y prologue and the goofy-ass sex scene, but this book is just damn entertaining, and probably the best book I've read this year.