I don’t so much review books as write about the books I read and what I found interesting as a reader and a writer. There may be spoilers. Reader beware.
By Sara Gruen
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.
I read At the Water’s Edge without knowing a thing about it. I had enjoyed a previous novel of Sara Gruen – Water for Elephants – and on that alone was willing to give it a try.
Maddie was lucky in many ways to marry Ellis Hyde. Her mother was scandalous and eventually committed suicide. Plenty of Philadelphia society silently judge Maddie for her mother’s transgressions, including Ellis’s mother. Maddie is inoculated from the world by her husband and his best friend Hank. They carouse together, having many adventures. When one goes too far – Ellis drinks too much, publicly insults his father, then privately accuses his father of falsifying a prior discovery which brought him acclaim – the Hydes kick Ellis and Maddie out of the house and cut off their funds.
In an effort to prove his worth, Ellis wants to recreate his father’s trip to Scotland to find the Loch Ness monster. He plans to record a sighting of the monster, securing his father’s respect and that of society who judge him for not serving in World War II. His color-blindness and Hank’s flat feet prevent them from serving but that doesn’t prevent the whispers.
In the midst of fighting in the Atlantic, the three travel to Scotland by ship, narrowly avoiding U-boats. Maddie is shaken by the experience. The war had also seemed so distant to her and the proximity of violence is jarring. So begins her awakening to life outside a glittering ballroom.
The small inn near Loch Ness takes the trio in but they aren’t made welcome. Ellis and Hank continue to act as if they are in high society, assuming the workers at the inn’s pub will unpack their bags and serve them fancier food. But Scotland is in the middle of the war. Blackout shutters are set up each night. Rations are carefully portioned. Everyone pitches in.
Ellis and Hank disappear for days on end while searching for the monster and interviewing locals who claim to have seen it. Maddie is left behind and eventually begins to chip in around the inn and pub. There is much she doesn’t know about cleaning and cooking but the women gradually warm to her and take her under their wings. Maddie has female friends for the first time and becomes involved in their lives, helping protect them just as they help her.
When Ellis notices the changes in Maddie’s demeanor, he wants to send her to a hospital for a lobotomy. Seems extreme but apparently a husband had a right to do that back then. It doesn’t help that Maddie was diagnosed with a nervous condition when she fainted once, compounded with her mother’s history. It will be easy for Ellis to commit her to the hospital so he can live his life as he pleases.
During his absence, Maddie falls in love with the innkeeper, Angus. He is in the military, teaching at the nearby military school, and takes care of the villagers by hunting game and leaving meat on doorsteps. He is strong and capable and competent, all the things Ellis isn’t. Angus falls for Maddie as well during her change which is a lovely subplot to the story. It certainly wraps up the ending with a neat bow but I was so invested in Maddie that I cheered for her happy future.
The story is told in the first person so we are stuck with Maddie in the inn when her husband deserts her. We know her fears about her husband as he becomes more erratic and violent. We see her perspective change as she learns about the war and the villagers, especially the women working at the inn and pub. First person is an effective choice for At the Water’s Edge. A more distant third person may have explained more about Ellis and Hank and others, but would have lost the complexity of Maddie’s growth.
One aspect of the book I still think about is the relationship between Ellis and Hank. Maddie learns that they flipped a coin to see who would propose to her and marry her. She could have just as easily ended up with Hank. However, I got the sense that the trio would have remained no matter who married her. Ellis and Hank disappear together for days on end and I wondered if their relationship was more than friendship. Hank is interested in women, although never settles down. Maddie and Ellis don’t have an intimate relationship. The handful of facts don’t necessary mean Ellis and Hank were in love but it does complicate the trio. Ellis is clearly more invested in Hank and more loyal to him than his own wife.
A tale about growing up and maturing is the basis of many novels. At the Water’s Edge succeeds with excellent and clear writing, a strong voice for the protagonist and a stressful situation in which to learn.