I recently read Sara Gruen's book Water for Elephants, which was a New York Times Bestseller, a Book Sense #1 Pick of the Month, and has ranked consistently high on Amazon, along with selling, I think it was, at least 2 million copies. This novel tells the story of Jacob Jankowski and his adventures on a circus train, where he works as an unofficial veterinarian and falls in love with a glamorous performer named Marlena in this not-so-glamorous and often violent circus world. Interwoven among chapters of high-drama antics are quieter chapters about Jacob as a ninety or a ninety-three-year-old resident in a retirement center in the days before the circus is coming into town. My honest analysis of this book is that I didn't love it. BUT, I should point out that I tend to be a lover of the classics, preferring Anna Karenina to Life of Pi and Light In August to The Kite Runner.
Having said that, I have a lot of praise for the book. Gruen carefully researched her subject matter, and from that was able to depict what I assume is a historically accurate depiction of circus life during the depression. Gruen mastered the language of the times and recounted interesting adventures, several of them based on anecdotes preserved from people in the know. She also created sympathetic characters in the people and the animals along with colorful villains and quirky minor players. All of this adds up to an entertaining read that for many people will be quite the adventurous romp.
I admire Gruen. I have a lot to learn from a writer with such an amazing ability to create a book like this. Style, prose, and emotional complexity aren't everything -- though I personally value them -- and Gruen shows that one can engage readers, millions of readers, by perfecting the more fundamental elements of storytelling: creating sympathetic characters, an interesting setting, and a plot structure that builds to an dramatic and surprising climax.