It’s a beautiful day to make up some missed blog posts! I wanted to post every week, mostly to keep myself on track with my reading goal for the year, but it turns out it’s not the reading schedule I’m having a hard time keeping up with. I hate to abandon a challenge though, so after a brief hiatus, I’m back to catch up with my reviews. Today I’m going to be talking about At the Water’s Edge, by Sara Gruen.
I like a good historical fiction novel every now and then, but Gruen’s books are more than that. The plots are fast-paced and addicting, the characters–both good and evil–are fascinating, and the settings are vivid and exciting, even when circumstances are dismal. In fact, there’s only one aspect of Gruen’s books that I have a consistent complaint about; more on that in a minute.
A little about this story: Maddie, her husband, Ellis, and his ubiquitous best friend, Hank, begin the novel in 1944 as nothing more than spoiled rich kids without much sense of the world beyond their endless parties until Ellis’ father cuts them off and kicks them out. Bankrolled by the omnipresent Hank, Ellis decides the three must best his father by setting out to discover what his father tried and failed to prove years ago–the existence of the Loch Ness monster.
” “Look!” Hank screamed, and his voice was so guttural, so uncontrolled, we couldn’t help ourselves. He was filming furiously. He stuck his other arm out from under the raincoat just long enough to point…Ellis’s expression shifted and he twisted in his seat. I grabbed the edge of the boat and leaned over to look. Something large, dark, and rounded was moving quickly beneath the water. By the time I realized it was rising, it had rammed the bottom of the bow and flipped me into the air. My mouth and nose filled with water before i fully comprehended that I was beneath the surface. The cold was shocking…I looked up at the surface and, as though through thick, wavy glass, saw Ellis standing in the boat holding an oar. It sliced through the surface and came to a stop against my chest. With an enormous force of will, I managed to bring my hands back in front of me and locked my fingers around its shaft, just above the blade. I kept hold of it, and after what seemed like an eternity, wondered why I wasn’t moving toward the boat…He wasn’t saving me. He was making sure I stayed under.”
Maddie develops immensely throughout the narrative, and the true nature of her friends and acquaintances are unveiled as the story progresses. In the middle of the war, Maddie finds herself stranded in Scotland on a trip she’d rather abandon, stuck between building relationships with good people she meets there and trying to extricate herself from under the controlling thumb of her ignorant and self-centered husband. There’s romance, travel, a little mystery, and a lot of adventure between the covers of At the Water’s Edge, and once I started, I didn’t want to put it down.
But. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I do have something to say about it. The ending was a relief, in that I generally want things to work out well for the characters I’ve grown attached to in a book, but there’s just something about a neatly wrapped-up conclusion that leaves me a little unsatisfied. It feels less realistic for nothing to have gone irrevocably wrong. This is my one complaint about Gruen’s books generally, although I was more willing to accept the end of Water for Elephants than the end of this new novel.
More mild disappointments: It was moderately difficult to connect with the characters at first. There was a lot more context about the characters’ lives before the trip to Scotland than I thought strictly necessary, and at that point none of them were particularly likable. I was propelled onward by my intrigue with high society activity in the 1940’s more than the characters, which made the first several chapters feel rather slow and distant. The actual opening of the story, in contrast, was particularly interesting and the characters immediately likable, but they vanish completely for quite a few chapters, and when they return, the romance that will unfold becomes obvious and inevitable, despite Maddie’s hesitancy to put the pieces together.
This isn’t to say that I disliked the story, however. Despite the transparency of the romance and the tidy ending, this book made me long to visit Scotland myself, and I was undeniably happy about the good guys joining forces and overcoming their obstacles. I was saddened at first by Maddie’s apparent lack of agency in the novel, but as her character grows she does become more active and vocal, in which case her habit of following orders and doing what she’s expected to turned into a character win that I was happy with by the end. Furthermore, even the more predictable aspects of the book didn’t deter me from wanting to find out how the story would reach point B from A. If the destination was clear, the journey remained a twisted mystery that kept me turning pages. Overall, I give At the Water’s Edge 3.5/5 stars.
Further recommendations: whether you like At the Water’s Edge or not, I’ve got two books for you that struck me as similar, but rated higher on my list of favorites:
- Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. This one focuses on the lives of traveling circus employees. The gloriously amusing main character is a man narrating his past with the circus and his present at a nursing home, which the circus is visiting. This book is a magical must-read with the same great setting, character, and plot elements that Gruen handled well in At the Water’s Edge.
- Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I read this around the same time as At the Water’s Edge, and enjoyed the irony of having unintentionally picked up two historical fiction books set in Scotland around the same time. Well, Outlander starts in the 1940’s, but turns into a sci-fi time-travel novel. It’s got the captivating setting, the expectedly unexpected romance, and so much action and adventure that I almost felt like I was getting a workout just reading about it. I’m currently forging my way onward through this intriguing series, so I’ll probably have a review of at least the first book up soon. But first:
Coming up next: The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J. K. Rowling). I loved murder mysteries so much a few years ago that a good detective story feels like a palate cleanser when I’ve been reading a lot and need a break without actually stepping away from the bookshelves. This one’s nothing like Harry Potter, but J. K. Rowling’s a great writer and it really shows in The Cuckoo’s Calling, as well. Stay tuned for my full review later this week!
Please share your thoughts on At the Water’s Edge with me; I’d love to hear your opinions or feedback. Also, drop any recommendations/requests you have for me in the comments below! Happy reading!
The Literary Elephant