Friday marked the release of Water for Elephants starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson, and you might want to read the book before you see the movie. Sara Gruen’s 2006 bestselling novel is a tremendous, sensual story filled with lust, love, hatred, and murder all on board a seedy circus train.

The brilliance of the story is that the reader believes they are aware of the ending from the very beginning—a flash of the climax to come. From there, a dual story is built, detailing Jacob’s adventures joining the Benzini Brothers circus, told from both a young Jacob’s point of view and an elderly Jacob’s point of view. Gruen masterfully creates and weaves complex relationships between Jacob and the workmen, performers, animals, and his love interest, Marlena.

But perhaps the brilliance of the writing makes it a difficult read as well. To be privy to the ending makes for an impatient read, particularly because, as the story develops, the span of Jacob’s relationships expands. Characters enter the story midway, and bonds form with the protagonist though it’s not clear how those relationships drive the story to the already known end.

Despite its lulls, Water for Elephants is a stunningly crafted tale that ultimately holds the reader’s interest. The plot is beautifully redemptive, thanks to a surprise twist from an important detail, and the journey to the end is detailed and incredibly researched. The book is vivid and imaginative—though it masterfully incorporates real life grit–and surely fuels a visual masterpiece on the big screen.

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