At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen


23209927I 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!

18 thoughts on “At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

  1. Don Royster says:

    One of the interesting thing about this writer is that she is not afraid to take on larger than life material in all her books. A common element that runs through all her other books is humans relationship with animals, both good and bad. Just from your review I take it that this novel is not up to Water For Elephants or Ape House.

    • Naomi says:

      I think it is just different. It focuses more on people, for one thing. It’s not as sad as Water For Elephants. I can’t compare it to her other books, though, because I haven’t read them yet. I get the impression that you think highly of Ape House?

  2. sharkell says:

    I have read 3 of Gruen’s books but was only really impressed with Water For Elephants which was a stand out favourite. I don’t think I’ll pick this one up.

    • Naomi says:

      This book is very different from Water For Elephants, except for the fact that you could say that, in both, she is good at setting the atmosphere of the time and place she is writing about. I enjoyed this book, but it depends on what you are looking for. Unfortunately, I can’t say how it compares to Ape House or Flying Lessons.

  3. My Book Strings says:

    I’ve only read Water for Elephants, which I liked but didn’t love. Based on your review, it sounds like this one might actually be similar in that, despite the abuse, Water for Elephants meant more to entertain, than to explore the serious elements in it, in my opinion anyway. It sounds like that is how you ended up looking at At the Water’s Edge. I will probably read this eventually, but it’s not a book I am rushing to get my hands on.

    • Naomi says:

      I wish I could remember Water For Elephants more than I do. My lasting impression of it is that is was kind of depressing (not necessarily a bad thing), but I am forgetting the details of it. But, based on what you just said, yes, they sound similar in that way. At the Water’s Edge isn’t as sad (maybe because there are no animals in it).

  4. BuntyMcC says:

    Some of the historical elements don’t seem to ring true. Were civilians allowed to cross the Atlantic in 1945? Scotland would have had shortages, but wouldn’t have been subject to bombings – though they probably had blackouts. And when you quoted: “men slaughtered each other in knee-deep mud ” I had to check again whether this was WWI (lots of mud) or WWII. The US had been in the war for 3 years by 1945, so were they immune to war coverage in the US? Confession: I’ve never read Sara Gruen…

    • Naomi says:

      No, they weren’t supposed to be crossing the Atlantic, but they were rich and spoiled and managed to get themselves across anyway. Possibly unrealistic, but maybe not?
      I wondered that about the knee-deep mud, too, but maybe both wars had mud, just to different degrees.
      The characters in this book pretty much just ignored the war news – they felt like it didn’t have much to do with them. The spoiled-ness of the characters, though, was an aspect I liked a lot about this book. They were interesting to read about.

  5. whatmeread says:

    I have not been able to decide whether to give this one a pass or not, and your review just made me more uncertain. It sounds really like a silly idea.

    • Naomi says:

      It was a silly idea on their part to go looking for the Loch Ness monster while the war was still going on, but that was part of the fun of reading it – the characters were completely selfish and gave no thought to anyone else. They also didn’t seem to think anything bad could possibly happen to them. And, at this point, Ellis was desperate to fix the situation he had gotten himself into with his father and his father’s money. The characters made for very amusing and interesting reading, I thought.
      I will be interested to see what others make of this book, once more people have read it…

  6. The Paperback Princess says:

    I’ve heard this one is very different from Water for Elephants, which for me is great news since I didn’t like that one. I know. The circus is just not my thing (unless you are The Night Circus). Still torn about whether or not to pick this one up …maybe if it jumps out at me at the library.

    • Naomi says:

      I liked Water For Elephants, but this one is different, so I don’t think it matters. I think you would get a kick out of Ellis and Hank. But, might roll your eyes at certain parts, too. I thought it was fun, and never once thought that I wished I wasn’t reading it (as I was reading it).

  7. JacquiWine says:

    I’ve only read Water for Elephants, which I didn’t particularly like (it was my book group’s choice). I can’t remember much about it now, but Water’s Edge does sound quite different….more character-driven, perhaps?

    • Naomi says:

      There’s definitely a plot, but the characters are what she does best in this one, I think. The plot could go either way (like or dislike), but I thought the characters were fun to read about – the awful ones, especially. 🙂

  8. The Cue Card says:

    I’ve heard mixed things on the book, particularly from Michelle at who thought it a bit disappointing. But it does sound like quite an adventure.

    • Naomi says:

      I liked it and am happy that I read it, but I think it depends on what you’re expecting to get out of it. If you want to be entertained for a few hours, then it’s great! If you want to dig deep into a emotional, thought-provoking book, then choose something else.

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