Like pretty much the entire world, I loved the bestselling novel, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (review link at the end of this review). Having read several of her novels, I’ve been wondering what topic she would tackle next. I could hardly wait to begin reading At the Water’s Edge and, once I read it, I could hardly wait to share it with you. It’s a very different novel from Water for Elephants, although it’s also a historical novel. At the same time it is every bit as riveting. See what you think…
Madeline a.k.a. Maddie did what was expected of her, she made a good marriage to Ellis Hyde and secured her place in Philadelphia’s high society. She, Ellis and Hank were all members of the privileged class and were inseparable in school. All three of them loved to have a good time and loved a good prank. Looking back, it probably made sense that she’d end up married to one of the two. When World War II broke out, Hank and Ellis were both called up to serve but neither of them made the cut. Hank had flat feet and Ellis was color blind.
You’d think their families would be thrilled not to risk losing their sons to war but that wasn’t the case for Ellis. His father, a former army colonel, took it as a personal affront – an affront that Ellis felt keenly. He never quite felt like he measured up to his father’s high expectations no matter what he did, so he pretty much gave up trying. Ellis, Hank, and Maddie loved to party and have a good time, so they pretty much continued the carefree life they had led during school – a life of privilege and excess. They lived in such a rarified bubble that the war and any privations most people experienced didn’t touch their lives at all.
Then on New Year’s Eve, as the year changed from 1944 to 1945, Ellis made a serious strategic error. He got horribly drunk, a rather common occurrence for him, and created an incident at a high society party which shamed his father in public. Even Ellis’ mother, who had always defended his antics, had gotten him out of many scrapes, and had sweet talked his father out of punishing him for his entire life – even she could not overcome the colonel’s wrath this time. He cut Ellis off financially, leaving him to fend for himself, something he had no idea how to do. Economize was not a word he could even begin to comprehend and the word “destitute” made no sense at all. What are these adult babes in the woods going to do? You may not feel one bit sorry for them at this point but their plight was very real.
In desperation, Ellis and Hank plot how to get Ellis back in his father’s good graces. It seems an insurmountable task but they hatch a plan. The colonel had been shamed once before, not by Ellis, but by the media. Years before, he had gone in search of the Loch Ness monster and had found it. But later he had been falsely (he said) accused of faking evidence of its existence. The colonel was livid with rage because he swore he had actually found the beastie, even though his evidence looked sketchy to the world. That was a black mark on his stellar reputation that he wanted desperately to remove, something he expounded on frequently. If Ellis can actually find the monster and provide irrefutable proof of its existence then he can avenge his father’s honor and get back in his good graces. Maddie thinks they’re mad but, as always, where they go she goes.
So, with Hank bankrolling the expedition, the three set off for Scotland in the middle of World War II. It never occurred to them that they could be in danger while crossing the ocean, at least until a boat is torpedoed before their eyes. Seeing the injured survivors brought on board their ship is a huge eye opener for Maddie, although Ellis and Hank seem completely unfazed by it. Suddenly the war and what could happen to them, as they sail to Europe and the heart of the war, is no longer just a newspaper headline – it becomes real to her. She realizes the three of them are completely clueless about the world around them. How could they be so blind?
“I climbed to my feet and reeled away from the car, thinking I might be sick again. My legs propelled me toward this building, spinning ever faster. I crashed into the wall, then slid down until I was crouching against it.
In the distance a sheep bleated.
To say that I wished I wasn’t there would be a ludicrous understatement, but I’d only ever had the illusion of choice:
We have to do this, Hank had said. It’s for Ellis.
To refuse would have been tantamount to betrayal, an act of calculated cruelty. And, so, because of my husband’s war with his father and their insane obsession with a mythical monster, we’d crossed the Atlantic at the very same time a real madman, a real monster, was attempting to take over the world for his own reasons of ego and pride.”
When they arrive at the small hamlet on the coast of Loch Ness, they’re all in for a rude shock. It’s not at all the way they had imagined. There are no decent hotels, much less the kind of luxurious ones to which they’re accustomed. They’re stuck in a tiny rustic inn with a surly innkeeper named Angus. The fireplace burns peat for God’s sake, there’s strict rationing, and the windows are covered in black cloth. WTH have they gotten themselves into?
While Ellis and Hank go off on their merry adventures every day, Maddie is left at the inn like the third wheel she’s slowly realizing she has always been in this threesome. She sees how resentful the inn’s employees are of not just their expensive clothes but of their profound sense of entitlement. And she begins to feel horribly embarrassed by how Ellis and Hank treat people they consider beneath them, as if they’re not only invisible but as if they aren’t even people – just objects beneath their notice unless they’re needed to meet some immediate need they have. She grows more and more horrified by their attitude and childish behavior. She also begins to realize that, to some extent, they treat her the same way.
At the same time, she begins to see the raw beauty of Scotland and its strong people. These are people who live in fear of a knock on the door by the postman, who often brings news of a loved one fallen in battle, yet who have backbones of steel and are determined to do what has to be done no matter what. No wonder they look down their noses at the American trio, who sail ignorantly into a war without a clue and then expect to be pampered in the middle of said war. To say it’s embarrassing would be a gross understatement.
And as Maddie begins to pitch in to help out at the inn, so she won’t die of boredom and because it only seems right, they begin to grudgingly accept her while wondering why on earth she’s attached to those two daft men; something Maddie’s beginning to wonder as well. It isn’t long before she begins to question the life she’s led in the face of this tight-knit community. Is it possible her values might have been somewhat distorted by the life she’s led? She also learns things that make her begin to wonder if her two best friends might not be the people she thought they were. Is it possible there’s something much more wonderful about life than she thought?
Maddie is the heroine who transforms in this story, although the two women she befriends at the inn are also heroines for many reasons. There’s also far more to Angus than Maddie can initially see, and that’s all I’ll say about that. As for Ellis and Hank, I’m trying hard not to provide spoilers about them so the less said the better. I will, however, say that I detested Ellis pretty much from the beginning and those feelings only grew stronger as the novel progressed. I’ll also say that I had no patience for this entitled yet naïve trio, and almost put down the novel early on because I got so disgusted with how they behaved. I’m really glad I didn’t because I would have missed out on a wonderful story. Oh, and did I mention that there are a couple of romantic encounters in this novel?
I’m just going to cut to the chase and say that if you liked Water for Elephants, you’re going to love At the Water’s Edge. If you have read any of her novels, you know Sara Gruen’s research is impeccable and she is a consummate storyteller, and she just proved both of those things again. She also thankfully breaks down historical fact from fiction in the Author’s Note.
I was completely captivated by At the Water’s Edge, despite my initial Scots-Irish repulsion at the characters’ entitled presumptions. The only down side was that the story ended. Dammit, I wanted to know more about what became of Maddie, who had become like a good friend who I had seen through troubled times. Needless to say, I highly recommend At the Water’s Edge – love, love, loved it!
Want to know about this Canadian-born author who lives in Asheville, NC? Click here for a recent article about her that I found. It talks about At the Water’s Edge and gives insight into this wonderful author.
Can’t wait to read it?
At the Water’s Edge was published on March 31, 2015, so it’s available in all formats from your favorite online bookseller below (or in the right column for iBooks). If you download it as an e-book, you can have it to read right now!
I’d love to get your comments on At the Water’s Edge, Sara Gruen or her other work, and/or this review.
Click here to read our review of Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Please note: This was one of the first novels I reviewed on this web site almost 4 years ago, so my review style has changed since then.
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