I vacillated between 3 stars and 4 for this, but after our office book club discussion I settled on the 4. Water For Elephants is a memorable book, and I would recommend it to almost everyone. Being a fan of the science fiction and mystery genres, I wasn't as thrown off by Gruen's alternating time-periods as some would be; most of the novel is told in flashback and the jumps between times are fewer and farther between as the novel progresses. What happens during Jacob's time with Benzini Brothers is the real story here and the modern sequences are simply framing and used to heighten tension. So if the modern scenes had been cut, would the novel have been as effective? I personally think so. While the modern scenes flesh out Jacob's character and do add the secondary tension (how did he get from his life with the circus to a miserable retirement home?), I think they could just as well have been done without. Gruen creates more than enough tension in primary, secondary, and even tertiary storylines surrounding the circus. She does this not only through the four main characters (Jacob, Marlena, August and Rosie) but also by letting Jacob interact with secondary characters (like circus owner Big Al, Walter the dwarf, and Camel the roustabout) and even tertiary characters (Carl, Pete, the other animal handlers and the other animals) and letting their own problems influence Jacob's actions. Two major scenes near the end pull most of these characters together magnificently. And Gruen's descriptions of the world of the traveling circus are terrific -- she gives us all the pomp and circumstance and color we expect from a circus setting, but also brings in the miserable living conditions and dirt around the edges that the workers and animals dealt with. Her ability to mix the colorfulness of the musical BARNUM with the bleakness of the Showtime series CARNIVALE so perfectly really impressed me.
My only real complaint would be in how patly everything wraps up for Jacob after the major events of circus portion of the book -- the explanation of how he got from circus to nursing home feels a little too perfect, a little too "let's wrap everything up and have no loose ends." That might be what keeps me from giving the book an even higher score; to explain further would be to risk spoilers for those who haven't read the book (or seen the movie) and intend to.