At the Water's Edge an Unglorious Mess

Sara Gruen
Spiegel & Grau, 368 pages, 978-038523233

Here's a novel that has it all: rich people, the Scottish Highlands, the Loch Ness monster, ghosts, a bearded Scotsman, hair's breath escapes from death, sex, violence… It's only missing one thing: an ounce of plausibility. Okay, two things; it's not very well written either. Sara Gruen's latest novel is wildly popular, but then again so are Nora Roberts romances and Thomas Kincaid paintings and for the same reason: if you push all the correct sentimentality buttons, lots of people will consume your work as if it were made of chocolate-covered fried dough.

Like millions, I readily devoured Gruen's Water for Elephants, which I found too charming to muse over its literary merits. At the Water's Edge is a different matter altogether. It's what you'd get if you put Wide Sargasso Sea, Mrs. Dalloway, The Yellow Wallpaper, The Great Gatsby, My Man Godfrey, and a few bodice rippers in a blender, set it to crush, and reassembled the parts haphazardly.

The book is set in the waning days of World War Two, a small conflict that apparently escaped notice from members of Philadelphia's upper crust. It centers on a young married couple, Ellis and Madeline, though Ellis much prefers the company of his friend Hank. Although in the pink of health, neither man is in uniform because Ellis is allegedly color-blind and Hank has flat feet. Because they are also the offspring off the idle rich, they are content to dance and drink the war away. Madeline is Ellis' prize/rebellion from when all three were in prep school. She's beautiful in face, but rail thin, despised by her snooty in-laws, and generally treated as if she were suffering from neurasthenia. Already there are problems in Gruen's narrative. The setting feels more 1924 than 1944, and the three central characters come off more like besotted Jazz Age escapees from a rough draft of a Fitzgerald novel. Despite the fact they are supposed to be Americans, Ellis and Hank seem more like upper-class British twits—the sort who wouldn't know how to crack a hard-boiled egg and would leave it to the servants to do.

It goes downhill from here. After a falling out with his rich parents, who cut his allowance and belittle Madeline, Ellis hastily arranges a wartime sail to Scotland. Why? So he can redeem himself by—wait for it—finding the Loch Ness monster! (There is, of course, a brush with near-death on the way.) In Gruen's increasingly ludicrous plot, Ellis' father is none other than the man who took the infamous 1934 "Surgeon's Photograph" of Nessie that was proven to be a fraud. If only Ellis can find Nessie and restore his old man's reputation, maybe all will be forgiven and he'll get to live happily with Madeline. Or not—because this book is filled with so many ham-handed homoerotic hints that we suspect it's really Hank he'd rather bed.

The Scottish sojourn involves checking into the only hotel in Drumnadrochit, the village nearest the waters where Nessie is most often seen. It is run by the brooding Angus, who is having nothing of being ordered about by a group of lazy, loudmouthed Yanks without uniforms or ration books. Ellis and Hank are horrible, inconsiderate louts in every way imaginable–so bad that Madeline begins to see her marriage as a literal trap–one in which Ellis might be plotting to have her declared insane so he can tuck her away in an asylum and lay his profligate hands on her fortune.

Oh, please! Do you have the stomach for more? What's been left out? People aren't who they appear to be on the surface. There are more near-death experiences, but providential rescues by heroes and (perhaps) by ghosts and monsters. Oh yeah. I left out drug addiction, poaching, violence against women, suicide, dead children, steamy sex, and leaden prose. And let's not forget Gruen's descriptions of World War Two, though you could get these by reading Wikipedia. The only redeeming quality lies with depictions of the bleakness of British home front life during the war.

Do not fall prey to this book's hype. It's not akin to Water for Elephants. In fact, it reads like the sort of book that an author is pressured to write to capitalize on the success of a previous best seller. I will reserve judgment about Gruen's literary talents for now, but of At the Water's Edge it must be said that though it's Scottish, it's still crap.

Rob Weir

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