Book Review: At the Water's Edge

Looking for the Loch Ness Monster and finding love in World War II Scotland

<i>At the Water's Edge</i>

At The Water's Edge

by 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?

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Summer reading
Getaways Far, Far Away
Getaways Far, Far Away
Summer reading recommendations that will take you out of this world

Robert Faires, June 17, 2016

Getaways Far, Far Away
Dark Run
Mike Brooks' ragtag gang on a galactic smuggling mission may seem familiar (cough, Firefly), but you'll love 'em all the same

Rosalind Faires, June 17, 2016

More Summer Fun 2015
Summer's Easy Readin'
Summer's Easy Readin'
Writers on their go-to books for when their gray cells need a vacay, too

Robert Faires, June 12, 2015

Put a Cape on It
Put a Cape on It
Donning Layers of Costumery May Reveal Layers of Secret Identities

Jessi Cape, May 15, 2015

More Arts Reviews
<i>The Year That Broke Politics</i>
The Year That Broke Politics
How the 1968 election became a preview of our modern political mayhem

Jay Trachtenberg, Oct. 27, 2023

<i>The Plague Year: America in the Time of Covid</i> by Lawrence Wright
The Plague Year: America in the Time of Covid
In his account of the ongoing coronavirus crisis, the New Yorker writer reports the killers are off the leash

Michael King, June 4, 2021

More by Jessi Cape
The Long Game
True-life story of Mexican-American teens who make a run at the 1957 state golf championship

April 12, 2024

SXSW Panel Discusses Promoting DEI in the Workplace
SXSW Panel Discusses Promoting DEI in the Workplace
In challenging times, supporting diversity is more critical than ever

March 14, 2024

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Summer reading, Summer Fun 2015, Historical fiction, Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle