Thursday, June 25, 2015
"At the Water's Edge": Literal and Figurative Monsters
Sara Gruen's latest novel "At the Water's Edge" possesses an intriguing storyline just like "Water for Elephants." The story revolves around Maddie and,Ellis (who are married) and Hank (their best friend), three socialite partiers who are spared the horrors of WWII in their elitist New York City existence. Rather than facing the sacrifices that so many need to make, they live a life of excess and fun until Ellis and Maddie disgrace Ellis's rich family one too many times. Ellis contrives a ridiculous plan to restore his good faith in the family by clearing his father's reputation as a con-artist who set up a Loch Ness monster hoax. Even though it's wartime, Ellis convinces Maddie and Hank to journey from New York City to Scotland's highlands in search of the Loch Ness monster.
The journey is perilous through stormy, war torn seas, and when they arrive at their destination in Scotland, their reception is chilly at best. Ellis and Hank reveal themselves as spoiled, rich, ruthless party boys who have no concern for others, and Maddie begins to see the truth of her marriage as well as her own part in a life she hasn't really been living but deadening with anxiety pills. While Ellis and Hank abandon her to spend time together carousing and fruitlessly searching for a monster that may or may not exist, Maddie realizes the true monster is not necessarily the legendary one in the Loch, but the one she calls her husband.
The best moments of this book come from the genuine friendships that Maddie forms with "the help" at the inn. Even more than that, the best character in the book is Angus, the mysterious inn keeper who disappears every day, but protects his staff and his community tirelessly from the threat of enemies both from the war and the patrons who frequent the inn. The relationship between Maddie and Angus builds throughout the novel's second half and culminates in truly touching fashion.
Rife with legends, superstitions, dark and mysterious beauty, the setting of Scotland's Highlands offers much in the way of cold and lonely landscapes, but Gruen doesn't seem able to actualize all the elements that she orchestrates in the novel. Ellis is a heavy handed bully, and so unlikable that he seems like more of a caricature than an actual person. Although Hank shows some signs of redeeming traits, he ultimately remains a flat character with little to offer in the way of the storyline. The whole motif of monsters among us set against the backdrop of WWII and the Loch Ness monster are just as heavy handed as Ellis's drunken and drugged abuse. The theme is fitting and the different components are there for an amazing story to unfold, but instead the narration and the flow of the plot feel clunky and wooden.
The book itself is highly readable. I was able to finish it in just a day and a half, but the satisfying feeling I get at the end of a great book just didn't materialize at the end of this one. It's good, but not great. Interesting, but not mind blowing. With the rain soaked setting, I felt cold reading it and am ready to warm up with a hot summer book.