“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. 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 she 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. Maddie 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 of life’s beauty and surprising possibilities.”
Thoughts on the Novel: Set in the final months of World War II, At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen explores love and loss in a changing world. One does not need to look far for real-life monsters given what is happening in Europe, but Ellis, Hank, and Maddie find themselves crossing the ocean to do just that. This inexplicable journey sets up the rest of the story as Maddie must reevaluate everything she thought she knew.
There is no doubt that Ms. Gruen can write. As she sets the stage for everything Maddie faces, there is a poetry to her words which are mesmerizing. However, in this particular novel, the writing cannot make up for the flat story. There is a heavy-handed use of convenient plot twists that make the story more of a fairy tale than a realistic piece of historical fiction. One can make an argument that the story is magical realism, which makes sense in many ways. However, the general impression is that Ms. Gruen’s intention is for this to be a serious historical fiction piece with a little magic thrown in for good measure. This makes the fairy tale aspect unexpected and out of place.
The other disconcerting element of the novel is how quickly everything happens. Maddie realizes the truth about her marriage, falls in love with someone else, and makes life-altering decisions all within a matter of pages. In the case of falling in love, she does so without speaking more than a few words to her new love interest. The whole scenario is just odd, and as with the convenient plot devices, feels inauthentic to the underlying story.
Sara Gruen will always be synonymous with her breakout novel, Water for Elephants, and with good reason. It is the perfect marriage of beautiful writing, a fascinating setting, interesting characters, and a compelling story. Unfortunately, At the Water’s Edge fails to measure up to her previous success. As beautifully written as it is, there is a lack of connection between the characters which keeps them aloof. The setting is gorgeous, but it never becomes anything more than a backdrop. Also, the characters fail to remain static and loosely developed, The rapid pace of the story prevents it from becoming anything more than a superficial romance and diminishes any of the otherworldly elements. Had Ms. Gruen not had such a spectacular first novel, At the Water’s Edge would be perfectly decent in spite of its flaws. However, knowing what she is capable of writing does nothing but highlight the story’s deficiencies and make a reader wish for what could have been.