Gruen, Sara. At the Water’s Edge.

NY: Random House, 2015.

Gruen is best known for Water for Elephants, but this novel, her fifth, is rather different. It’s January 1945 and Maddie Hyde is a wild child in New York society. She’s been married to Ellis for a couple of years now, but she’s really more of a mascot for him and his best buddy, Hank, than she is a wife. Also, her in-laws hate her, her own father ignores her, and she feels guilty for her scandal-ridden mother’s suicide a decade before.

For reasons I won’t go into, the three of them are suddenly fleeing America for the wilds of the Scottish Borders — specifically Loch Ness. And the two guys are determined to prove the existence of the theoretical monster.

It soon becomes clear to both Maddie and the reader that her husband actually has a rather low opinion of his wife, which is partly why she’s hanging about the village’s pub/inn on her own most of the time. But she’s not a bad person, she has a natural helpful streak, and to keep from going crazy in her boredom and isolation, she offers to help out at the inn. The two young local women whose job that is are doubtful — but they have war work to do, as well, and their own family responsibilities, so Maddie is soon learning how to make beds and peel potatoes. And she becomes acquainted with Angus, the publican, who has his own tragic back-story.

Maddie also becomes increasingly suspicious of her husband’s claim of color-blindness, which kept him out of the war (and which has caused his father, a veteran of the Great War, to despise him). And then it becomes clear that Ellis is quite willing to sequester her away in an institution somewhere in order to protect his secret. Maddie decides that abandoning her deteriorating marriage is her only option, but she’s becoming increasingly terrified of her husband. And she’s also falling hard for the dour Angus.

This is melodrama, but of an above-average sort. The writing is vivid and crisp and you’ll have no difficulty siding with Maddie in her tribulations, though she seems to break down in tears very easily. The characters and the situations aren’t entirely black and white, but it’s easy to loathe Ellis and Hank for their callous arrogance and assumption of natural superiority over everyone in the village, not to mention for evading military service. Hank has a bit of sense left in him but Ellis just doesn’t care about anyone or anything except himself. Anyway, it’s a pretty good read and it will be interesting to see if a film is in the works.


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