Thursday, September 8, 2016

At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: September 2, 2016

After embarrassing themselves at the social event of the year in high society Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve of 1942, Maddie and Ellis Hyde are cut off financially by Ellis’s father, a former army Colonel who is already embarrassed by his son’s inability to serve in WWII due to his being colorblind. To Maddie’s horror, Ellis decides that the only way to regain his father’s favor is to succeed in a venture his father attempted and very publicly failed at: he will hunt the famous Loch Ness monster and when he finds it he will restore his father’s name and return to his father’s good graces (and pocketbook). Joined by their friend Hank, a wealthy socialite, the three make their way to Scotland in the midst of war. Each day the two men go off to hunt the monster, while another monster, Hitler, is devastating Europe. And Maddie, now alone in a foreign country, must begin to figure out who she is and what she wants. The novel tells of Maddie’s social awakening: to the harsh realities of life, to the beauties of nature, to a connection with forces larger than herself, to female friendship, and finally, to love.

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I enjoyed Riding Lessons and Water for Elephants well enough, but Sara Gruen’s At the Water’s Edge simply didn’t suit. I found the characters ridiculous and I wasn’t impressed with the situational drama she created. I personally think the book was over-hyped and while I appreciated the end-all, I was annoyed that the story followed the same formula as Gruen earlier work.

The roles aren’t exact, but it’s hard not to notice that the Loch Ness Monster serves the same purpose Rosie did in Water for Elephants. Ellis and August could wear the same shoes, as could Angus and Jacob. Maddie and Marlena could share a wardrobe, but if I’m honest I much preferred the latter leading lady. This recycling bothered me and left me questioning if Gruen was out of original ideas or if she’d been pressured to replicate her past success by the powers that be. You don’t even need to read the book to see what I’m talking about, it’s all there on the jacket. The muted tones, the stylized fonts, the angled texts… I can’t say for certain, but I’m disappointed to admit I spent more time pondering these similarities than I did the actual narrative.

Maddie, Ellis, and Hank annoyed me to no end. I found their world view obnoxious and couldn’t relate to them at all. I believe the trio were written this way intentionally as Maddie’s transformation is at the heart of the story, but I thought it a poor structural choice as it made her character impossible like and/or appreciate early on. I tossed the book aside in frustration on more than one occasion and honestly considered abandoning it outright, but I’ve a deep-seated love of my ancestral homeland as well as WWII and couldn’t give up without seeing how the Gruen utilized both time and place.

The Scottish cast and their culture were easily my favorite part of the book, but the conflict that had drawn me to story played virtually no importance. It makes enough of a splash to be recognized for what it is, but I think the story would have been stronger if it’d been set after the war ended. Maddie’s journey to Scotland would have been more plausible and Gruen would have been able to manage the rest with only slight adjustment.

In the end I didn’t see much value in the story and was truly disappointed by the rehashing. Not for me and not something I see myself recommending down the road.

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“The monster—if there was one—never revealed itself to me again. But what I had learned over the past year was that monsters abound, usually in plain sight.”
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