BookPage Fiction Top Pick, April 2015
A search for an elusive sea monster at the height of World War II sounds like the plot of a genre-mashup movie. But in At the Water’s Edge, the latest novel from Water for Elephants author Sara Gruen, what starts out as a lark on the part of rich, entitled friends turns into a quest that is at times frightening, liberating and even comical.
Bored and wealthy Ellis schemes to find and photograph the Loch Ness Monster in an attempt to one-up his dismissive father, who was ultimately discredited in his own infamous attempt. He and his best friend, Hank, drag Ellis’ wife, Maddie, along—and her journey to uncover truths about herself, her marriage and the kind of life she wants to lead provides the novel’s heart.
Glad simply to be alive after encountering German U-boats during their Atlantic crossing, Maddie isn’t willing to participate in the boys’ foolish scheme—and she soon starts to wonder whether the true monster might be closer to home. Ellis and Hank certainly possess money and the breeding that often goes along with it, but as their search proves futile, Ellis displays increasing disdain for Maddie and the people of the Scottish village where they’ve sheltered. As Ellis’ desperation mounts, Maddie fears for the safety of herself and her newfound friends, including the brooding, handsome proprietor of the village inn.
Gruen skillfully weaves in historical reference points, making Maddie’s story seem larger than that individual focus. The author conveys the lure of the Scottish Highlands, and its storied lore and mystery help create her novel’s riveting, ethereal atmosphere. Maddie’s growing self-awareness is presented in stark—and welcome—contrast to her husband’s spiral into conceit and self-deception.
At the Water’s Edge captivates with its drama, intrigue and glimpses of both the dark and light of humanity. As Jane Austen once wrote, “with due exceptions, woman feels for woman very promptly and compassionately.” For all her faults, Maddie’s tragic history and her courage in the face of her present predicament will win readers to her side.