By Jennifer Reese
Updated June 02, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

As an old coot in a nursing home, Jacob Jankowski, the narrator of Sara Gruen’s easy-reading new novel, Water for Elephants, recalls the formative experience of his life: traveling with a rowdy, second-rate circus during the Depression. The story alternates between Jacob’s tartly observed daily routine (”What’s the difference between three weeks or three years or even three decades of mushy peas, tapioca, and Depends undergarments?”) and his action-packed past among dwarfs, elephants, fat ladies, and above all the lovely performer Marlena and her tormented husband, August. The Greatest Book on Earth this is not, but the sprightly tale has a ringmaster’s crowd-pleasing pace.