Book Review: At the Water's Edge
Looking for the Loch Ness Monster and finding love in World War II Scotland
Reviewed by Jessi Cape, Fri., June 12, 2015
At The Water's Edgeby Sara Gruen
Spiegel & Grau, 368 pp., $28
Once upon a time, three trust-fund brats – a married couple and their beloved third wheel – got wasted at a 1944 New Year's Eve bash among Philadelphia's high-society swells. This period romance novel by Sara Gruen, bestselling author of Water for Elephants, lands somewhere between Beauty and the Beast and Fried Green Tomatoes. The lamps don't sing, but there's a monster (or three) and a chance for major transformations and deadly stew. Brimming with victory curls and air raids, rich people problems and a feet-sweepin' love story, Gruen's thematic elements might not run as deep as Nessie's black loch, but make no mistake: I devoured this novel in one night.
Ellis, colorblind, and Hank, flat-footed, are unable to serve their country in the raging Second World War; Ellis' wife Maddie, dripping in diamonds and Champagne, must maintain her impeccably beautiful image of happy social butterfly despite the recent diagnosis of a nervous ailment and a darkened family history. The trio's inevitable fall from grace (and financial means) spurs a dangerous cross-Atlantic journey of salvation: They hope that traveling to the Scottish Highlands in search of the Loch Ness monster will ensure redemption for Ellis and his estranged father (whose own failed Nessie hunt brought ridicule to the family name). After a hellacious boat trip rife with bombs and violent illness, Maddie and the boys find themselves at the mercy of a surly innkeeper in a remote Scottish village shrouded in mysticism and secrets.
Researched to a T, with wartime factoids tucked into nearly every scene, this novel is a fairy tale, to be sure, but its richly sewn quilt of monsters lurking, chauvinistic debauchery, unintended self-discovery, and hard-won female camaraderie anchor the story. Romance – for the Disney princess and her entourage of barmaids – is the story's core, but the first-person narrative offers a unique look at the limited choices of many women to deal with soulless marriages, domestic violence, threats of lobotomy, lifelong loneliness, addiction, death, and a lack of education. As she scrubs off her rouge and rolls up her sleeves, Maddie's growing thirst for knowledge in her new world of blackout curtains and food rations propels her through grief and opens her to the possibilities of love, friendship, and most importantly, self-respect. There's a high concentration of cheese and formulaic plotting, but summertime is always better with a scarred, musclebound sourpuss full of Gaelic pet names, right?