At the Water's Edge
By Sara Gruen
Published: March 31, 2015
In this thrilling new novel from the author of Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen again demonstrates her talent for creating spellbinding period pieces. At the Water’s Edge is a gripping and poignant love story about a privileged young woman’s awakening as she experiences the devastation of World War II in a tiny village in the Scottish Highlands.
After disgracing themselves at a high society New Year’s Eve party in Philadelphia in 1944, Madeline Hyde and her husband, Ellis, are cut off financially by his father, a former army colonel who is already ashamed of his son’s inability to serve in the war. When Ellis and his best friend Hank decide that the only way to regain the Colonel’s favor is to succeed where the Colonel very publicly failed—by hunting down the famous Loch Ness monster—Maddie reluctantly follows them across the Atlantic, leaving her sheltered world behind.
The trio find themselves in a remote village in the Scottish Highlands, where the locals have nothing but contempt for the privileged interlopers. As the men go out looking for the monster, Maddie is left on her own at the isolated inn, where food is rationed, fuel is scarce, and a knock from the postman can bring tragic news. Yet Maddie finds herself falling in love with the stark beauty and subtle magic of the Scottish countryside. Gradually she comes to know the villagers, and the friendships she forms with two young women open her up to a larger world than she knew existed. She begins to see that nothing is as it first appears: the values she holds dear prove unsustainable, and monsters lurk where they are least expected.
As she embraces a fuller sense of who she might be, Maddie becomes aware not only of the dark forces around her, but to the beauty and surprising possibilities of life.
WWII may be raging overseas but the members of Philadelphia society carry on with their lavish lifestyle. Maddie and her husband Ellis (along with best friend Hank) go from one boozy party to another but Maddie is quickly tiring of it. Ellis is colorblind which exempts him from service, something his father the Colonel is deeply ashamed of. Things come to a head on New Year's Eve when Ellis gets roaring drunk and publicly humiliates his father by bringing up the whole Loch Ness monster debacle. In retaliation, Ellis is cut off financially so he decides he has to go and find the Loch Ness monster himself to repair things. Maddie reluctantly agrees to go along after Hank convinces her that it will help Ellis overcome his shame since he can't fight. Once in Scotland Maddie is awakened to how bad things really are in war time with rationing and hardship on the homefront. She also realizes the truth about herself and those she cares about.
I really felt sorry for Maddie. At first she comes across as extremely naive but as her background is revealed it helps the reader to realize why she behaves the way she does. She is the product of an unloving marriage between two people who should never have had children. Meeting Ellis after her difficult childhood was like an unexpected gift although his family does not approve of her. She becomes this weak person under the overbearing presence of the Colonel and his wife. The journey to Scotland is what really helps Maddie to gain strength to stand up for herself. While the villagers are hostile when they find out her connection to the Colonel, people begin to treat her with more kindness as they see what she is really like. I loved the friendships that Maddie formed with the women in the village, especially Meg. They sort of take her under their wing and help her to blossom away from the influence of Ellis and his family.
Ellis was mostly just an unlikable character. He is whiny and selfish and a spoiled brat. It is hard to see why Maddie fell for him in the first place but I think she was just looking for a safe harbor and found it with Ellis and his friends. Ellis initially just seems like a weak guy but then the book reveals his secrets and you start to see his dark side though it takes Maddie some time to realize it. He is not as overtly vile and villainous as August from Water for Elephants but I would have liked to see some more dimension to Ellis's character.
While the book is not as intricately detailed as Water for Elephants, I enjoyed the setting and I love reading about this time period. I did question that Maddie and Ellis's family didn't seem to be affected by rationing though it was 1945. It was all so new to her when she arrived in Scotland. That little detail niggled at me while I was reading but I thought perhaps she wasn't affected by rationing in the U.S. due to Ellis's family's wealth.
I liked Maddie as a protagonist and I really liked the charming secondary characters like Meg and Angus, especially. I also liked the whole Loch Ness angle and the possibility that the creature does exist. There is just a touch of the magical with the story. Overall I thought this was an entertaining novel that offered romance, mystery, and an interesting setting and I flew through the pages.
Note: I received an ARC for review purposes courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss