I think the response to At the Water’s Edge will vary a great deal between readers (this is already apparent if you look at the Goodreads reviews). Even I have started and re-started this review many times, trying to figure out how best to describe this book. I think how much you enjoy it will depend on what you expect to get out of it. I had a lot of fun reading it, but there were a few things about it that I couldn’t decide how to feel about. Until I let myself look at the book in a different way. Maybe I am over-analyzing, but I want people to go away from the book feeling like they’d just been on an enjoyable adventure filled with fun characters, like I did.
The characters are probably the best part of the book. Ellis, Hank, and Maddie are spoiled, shallow, and frivolous. They come from Philadelphia’s elite and they spend their days and nights drinking, partying, and sleeping. Until the night Ellis humiliates his father and is threatened to be cut off.
The relationship between these three friends is especially interesting. As the story unfolds, we learn more about each of them and how they came to be together. Even though Maddie and Ellis are now married, the three of them are still thick as thieves. In fact, Maddie admits to often feeling like the third wheel, rather than Hank. As we learn more about their backgrounds, it doesn’t take long to figure out that growing up privileged doesn’t guarantee a happy life. They might seem shallow and care-free on the surface, but underneath there are some serious issues.
In our set, battles were won by sliding a dagger coolly in the back, or by the quiet turn of a screw. People crumpled under the weight of an indrawn sigh or a carefully chosen phrase.
Hank and Ellis come up with a plan that they think will put them back into the good graces of the Colonel, but to us sounds foolhardy and irresponsible. Even Maddie is not so sure it’s a good idea, and she’s usually up for anything. The plan is to go to Scotland and find the Loch Ness Monster. The problem is that it is 1945 and there is still a war going on over there. Despite Maddie’s concern, they go.
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.
The story is told from Maddie’s perspective. She really has a rough time of it at first; sea sick, car sick, sick of the cold, faint from hunger, whine, whine, and complain. Then, once they get to the Inn in Scotland, the proprietor has no sympathy for them and refuses to cater to their every whim and fancy. Can things get any worse?
Yes, they can.
Things in Scotland are very different than from their neck of the woods. People here live with the realities of war everyday; gas masks, black-out curtains, air raids, and food rations are a part of every day life (a slab of drawer porridge, anyone?). While Ellis and Hank are out looking for the monster, Maddie’s eyes open to the realities of war, life, and especially her marriage.
Another interesting thing about this book is the contrast it makes; the care-free attitude and party atmosphere of Ellis, Hank, and their lives in America versus the careful lives and somber atmosphere of Scotland; superficiality versus reality.
Mass killings were described right next to information about laxatives. Cities were bombed, men slaughtered each other in knee-deep mud, civilians were blown to pieces from stepping on mines, but horses still spooked, people still went to the cinema, and women still worried about their schoolgirl complexions. I couldn’t decide if this made me understand the world better or meant that I’d never fathom it at all.
Maddie seems to be just as awful as the other two when we first read about her, but once we learn about her early life with her parents, our opinion of her begins to change along with her own attitude and actions. She finds herself making friends at the Inn and wanting to help out – two things that she has never done before in her life.
At this point in the novel, Maddie’s story becomes predictable in the way I imagine a romance novel to be. On my first consideration of the book, I didn’t find the romantic storyline believable or necessary. More on this later. I also found, on first consideration, some parts at the end to be tied up a little too nicely. Luckily, though, Ellis and Hank’s embarrassingly awful behavior mostly makes up for any flaws in the novel, along with a mysteriousness at the end to leave us wondering what might really have happened. And, of course, there’s still the question of whether or not the monster makes its appearance.
After further consideration… the more I think about the style and atmosphere of the book, the more I wonder if the author means for it to be a melodrama of sorts; with the back drop of WWII and the sweeping scenes of the Scottish country-side; the brusque, handsome hero and the heroine who doesn’t know she’s the heroine; Willie the Postman and Meg the Barmaid; a grand adventure; the search for a monster, fame, and fortune; and a good old-fashioned villain.
Even the cover seems to evoke in me a war-time melodramatic-type atmosphere.
It is hard to say whether or not the author intends this, especially since there are more serious elements to the story (the war, some domestic violence, substance abuse). But, the way things played out at the end makes me wonder. It seems to me more likely that the book was written with some good fun in mind, rather than a serious historical lament on WWII and the meaning of life. Whether she intends it to be melodramatic or not, I have chosen to see it that way and had a lot of fun reading it. If nothing else, Ellis and Hank’s awfulness is worth reading about. Read it – I want to know what you think!
Water For Elephants is probably the book Sara Gruen is best known for. This one is very different. Visit her website to learn about her other books. Has anyone read any of them? I own Ape House, and hope to read it sometime.
*Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!