At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen is tepid historical fiction with unlikable characters in this fish out of water novel. Three feckless and privileged young Americans travel to a village in the Scottish Highlands to find the Loch Ness monster. Because of the journey, Gruen’s main character, Maddie Hyde, realizes what a monster her husband Ellis is and discovers her true self in this foreign land. This is a broad brush story of the clash between classes. It’s also a primer on spousal abuse. And it’s a reminder that everyone suffers in the face of war, especially families of those killed.
Maddie starts as a vapid debutante, married to the scion of a wealthy Philadelphia family. Their marriage is free of passion, and Maddie is treated poorly by Ellis’s parents. Some decades earlier, Ellis’s father attempted to prove the existence of the Loch Ness monster. But the attempt ended in a measure of disgrace. So, to remove himself from some scandals, Ellis decides to try again. He and Maddie are joined by Hank, another privileged young man from their social circles.
The period is 1942, in the midst of World War II. Ellis and Hank are disqualified from serving in the military for physical reasons. But that doesn’t eliminate the scorn they hear from the Scottish villagers near the Loch. Generally, the villagers are suspicious of foreigners, so all three Americans find themselves disliked.
I joined the Scots in their dislike of these characters, taking particular issue with Ellis, who is positively an ass. Hank is slightly better, although I wondered how he put up with his supposed best friend’s boorish behavior. As the main character, Gruen redeems Maddie reasonably quickly. Still, her long-suffering attitude is hard to swallow.
I appreciated the subplot about one of the Scots, who served his country only to return home to a dead wife and daughter. It’s tragic but an authentic perspective on the horrors of war.
Gruen moves the story along at a decent clip, balancing her descriptions with plenty of action. Like a well-crafted three-act play, we have the build-up to Highland hijinks with a solid end and a heartwarming epilogue.
Pair with The Orphan’s Tale from Pam Jenoff, another World War II story with a unique setting.