Several years ago, I came across Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants and it was instant book love. I plowed through the novel in less than a day and now I will read anything that Gruen publishes. Admittedly, I've felt mix reactions towards her other novels, in particular, Ape House, but I'm still holding out hope that another Water for Elephants is out there.
I was very excited to see Gruen's latest novel, At the Water's Edge, available for review on Netgalley. Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for gifting me with an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.
PLOT- Madeline Hyde, her husband Ellis and their friend, Hank are all in their twenties and living the easy life in Philadelphia, as World War Two rages on in Europe. Ellis and Hank have both been exempt from serving in the military due to Ellis' color blindness and Hank's flatfoot. They are rich, jobless and living the highlife with their parent's money.
Life is grand, until the trio get smashed at a society party and are overheard discussing a scandal involving Ellis' father. Many years earlier, Colonel Hyde was in Scotland and he gained fame for his sightings of the Loch Ness Monster. He was discredited and shamed when it was revealed that he had fabricated evidence of Nessy. After hearing that this scandal was mentioned at the party, the colonel kicks Ellis and Maddy out of his home.
They take their savings and hatch a plan to get back into the colonel's good graces. They will catch a freighter ship to Scotland and redeem him by getting proof that Nessy exists. What the three underestimate is the toll that the war has taken on Scotland and that their vacation to hunt for the monster, will not be received kindly.
The group quickly learn that no amount of money can buy them certain privileges during the war and that no one is interested in their social status or plan. Maddie begins to realize that her life in America was shallow and that her marriage is falling apart. Her life begins to change as she makes friends with the people who work at the inn, including the mysterious and handsome innkeeper, Angus.
LIKE - I like Gruen's choice of themes. In Water for Elephants the theme is was circus life and animals. In Ape House it was primatology and in At the Water's Edge, it's the hunt for Nessy. These are themes that catch my interest and make me feel connected to Gruen. I think that she's an author that I'd love to have a cup of coffee with!
The best element of this story is the contrast between Maddy, Ellis and Hanks life in America to their stay in Scotland. In America, they are living like they are part of Jay Gatsby's social circle ( although a different era) and in Scotland, they are confronted with poverty and rationing. They simply cannot understand the contrast. They have no concept of the danger that they have put themselves in by traveling during the war. To them, everything in life is just a fun game. I liked seeing these two worlds collide and then watching Maddy's transformation as she realizes that her life in America was shallow and that she is becoming a more fulfilled woman with her new life in Scotland.
There are vivid and compelling secondary characters. In particular, I liked Meg, the feisty and sweet pub maid/inn worker.
Having recently visited Scotland, I felt a connection to the physical world of the story. On a side note, if you get a chance, visit. It's a gorgeous landscape and the Loch is a very foreboding and mysterious place.
DISLIKE - I didn't really care for the ghost element or the backstory for Angus. I understand the connection to the story as it was a link for the title and it bookended the story. Plus, it gave an air of mystery to both Angus and Loch Ness. However, with so many very serious issues tackled in this story, it made the serious issues seem a little less important, almost flippant. I think that this story would have been stronger if it had 100% been rooted in reality.
RECOMMEND - Yes! At the Water's Edge didn't grab me like Water for Elephants, but it's still a compelling story and Gruen is a good storyteller. I'd especially recommend this for people interested in Scotland and stories set during WW2. Gruen clearly spend a lot of time research the era and location, effort that paid off.