At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen
Pub. Date: March 31, 2015
Source: e-ARC via netgalley (thank you, Spiegel & Grau/Random House!!)
Summary: After embarrassing themselves at the social event of the year in high society Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve of 1942, Maddie and Ellis Hyde are cut off financially by Ellis’s father, a former army Colonel who is already embarrassed by his son’s inability to serve in WWII due to his being colorblind. To Maddie’s horror, Ellis decides that the only way to regain his father’s favor is to succeed in a venture his father attempted and very publicly failed at: he will hunt the famous Loch Ness monster and when he finds it he will restore his father’s name and return to his father’s good graces (and pocketbook). Joined by their friend Hank, a wealthy socialite, the three make their way to Scotland in the midst of war. Each day the two men go off to hunt the monster, while another monster, Hitler, is devastating Europe. And Maddie, now alone in a foreign country, must begin to figure out who she is and what she wants. The novel tells of Maddie’s social awakening: to the harsh realities of life, to the beauties of nature, to a connection with forces larger than herself, to female friendship, and finally, to love.
Genre: Historical Fiction, Wartime Fiction
Recommended for: fans of Gruen’s other work, readers looking for more romance than plot
As much as I try to avoid spoilers in my review, this is a book where it’s virtually impossible to discuss without giving away key plot points.
Before I began blogging, I fell hard for Gruen’s Water for Elephants. The job I had at the time had a lot of downtime, so when I wasn’t filing a document I was able to sneak in a chapter or two and read the book in its entirety over the course of two work days. I hadn’t read anything of hers since, but when I heard about At the Water’s Edge, I knew I wanted to read it. Looking back, I should have simply lived with the memory of the magical time I spent reading about the circus.
Maddie and Ellis Hyde are living the socialite’s dream until a disastrous New Year’s Eve party finds the young couple cut off from the Hyde fortune. Already embarrassed that his son’s colorblindness leaves him unable to serve in WWII, the Colonel is at the end of his rope; his patience has worn thin and Ellis’s drunken antics are the last straw. In an attempt to get back into his father’s good graces (and pocket), Ellis makes the rash decision to leave Philadelphia and head to Scotland where he’s determined to succeed where his father had failed: Ellis wants to hunt down the Loch Ness monster. Together with their friend Hank, the three board a ship that will take them across the Atlantic and into the true horrors of Hitler’s army.
That sounds interesting, right? World War II, a hunt for the Loch Ness monster. This is basically a Leah book! Unfortunately, At the Water’s Edge is far less about a mythical beast and more about Maddie’s love life. It’s also extremely boring. Dull to the point where I don’t even feel compelled to review it which is such a shame because At the Water’s Edge is a novel that had SO much potential. Sadly, Gruen’s decision to throw in multiple storylines and arcs seems to have gotten away from her and some threads that would have been fascinating to explore (Ellis’s sexuality, for example!) either fell flat or were forgotten about altogether.
Right from the start Ellis’s character undergoes a complete change. Initially a charming, fun man who dotes on his wife, Ellis turns out to be a raging alcoholic and something of a drug addict (there was some throwaway flashback where Maddie gets prescribed anxiety pills and I have no idea how large this bottle is, but at one point Maddie discovers Ellis has been stealing hundreds of them). He’s also abusive – both physically and verbally – and incredibly vindictive. There’s also a good chance he lied about being colorblind. Toward the end of the novel, he decides Maddie no longer serves any use to him and makes a call to some asylum, telling them she needs to be carted away. Where did all of this come from?! This was not the same Ellis from the beginning of the novel!
His best friend Hank wasn’t any better. On the surface he seems like a good guy, the sense of reason, but then he’ll whip out lines such as:
“But still, I think I ought to be able to sample the goods. What if I wait until the wedding night and then find I’m stuck with something subpar until death do us part?”
The subpar woman he’s hinting at is his girlfriend of numerous years. She’s been patiently waiting for him to finally propose, but the second Hank lands in Scotland, he starts fawning over another woman. It felt like there were moments where Gruen wanted the reader to root for (or at least like) Hank, but the more I read, the more my disgust grew. Maddie discovers Ellis only married her because of a coin toss where Hank lost. Great guy, right?
And of course we couldn’t possibly have a novel without romance.. Angus, the owner of the inn where the three are staying, oh-so-conveniently is single: while he was off fighting in the war, his baby daughter died and his wife drowned herself in the lake, setting Angus up very nicely to serve the part of the wounded, tortured love interest. To be honest, despite my grumbling, I actually liked him! In fact, I think Angus was probably my favorite character (though there weren’t many glowing prospects to choose from).
For a novel whose basis is set on the mystery surrounding the Loch Ness monster, poor Nessie is oddly absent. Their first few days in Scotland, Maddie, Ellis, and Hank head out to the lake where they’re attempting to get some sort of photographic evidence of Nessie’s existence. Ellis instructs Maddie to keep an eye out for any type of movement and after multiple shots of otters and branches, the big strong men declare Maddie too delicate for such a task and leave her at the inn. However, since the book is told through Maddie’s eyes, the weeks Ellis and Hank are gone leaves a big ol’ chunk in perhaps the best part of the book – and the plot that I was most looking forward to reading. Hilariously, however, during the book’s climactic fight scene, Nessie comes to Maddie’s rescue. ..so there’s that.
So what do we have so far? World War II and the German army reaching closer (including some aid raids); Angus’s brokenhearted past; Maddie’s budding romance with Angus; the Loch Ness monster; Ellis’s pill-popping, abusive, drunken ways; the asylum; for a large chunk of the book Maddie is mysteriously ill, leading me to believe she’s pregnant, but it all magically goes away by the next scene. There were far too many things Gruen wanted to do with this book. At one point Maddie is cleaning the boys’ rooms (because both are too high-brow to do it themselves and the staff all hate them) when she discovers photos of naked women in Hank’s room…and shirtless photos of Hank in Ellis’s room. This could have been such an interesting twist to explore, but Gruen simply abandoned it. Maddie has an aha! moment where she decides so that’s why Ellis rarely comes into her room…and that’s it. Does Hank know? Does Hank share Ellis’s feelings?? Who knows – it’s never mentioned again.
Once the boys leave to embark on a two-week long hunt, Maddie is free to finally express her feelings for Angus and it’s there that At the Water’s Edge turns into a romance. There’s one scene where it’s a literal bodice-ripper. I wouldn’t have been so disappointed and angry if I had been told upfront that At the Water’s Edge was a romance instead of the historical fiction/Nessie quest I had been expecting.
Because I have only read one other novel of Gruen’s, I really don’t know if At the Water’s Edge is simply a fluke or if this is how all of her novels are. Had this been pitched as the romance it was, I would have passed on it and wouldn’t have wasted my time. Instead, I went into it expecting a fun World War II-era read full of the Scottish landscape and a hunt for the mythical monster and ended up horribly let down. Too many storylines muddled the book even further and were dropped halfway through or wrapped up too neatly. While there were characters I enjoyed, I’m sad to say they simply weren’t strong enough to pull this mess together.