Review: Sara Gruen’s ‘At the Water’s Edge’

At the Water’s Edge. Sara Gruen. Spiegel & Grau. 368 pages. $28.
At the Water’s Edge. Sara Gruen. Spiegel & Grau. 368 pages. $28.

Take a hunt for the Loch Ness monster, set it during the last, tumultuous year of World War II and add a troubled marriage between an emotionally fragile heiress and a hard-drinking, sexually ambivalent charmer, and you’ve got the makings of a sensational novel — or an overwrought, melodramatic dud. Fortunately, At the Water’s Edge was written by the talented Sara Gruen, author of the bestselling Water for Elephants.

Her utterly winning story unfurls in 1945 in the Scottish highlands, at a time when fighter planes scream across northern skies. Here, three Americans — wealthy young couple Maddie and Ellis and their best friend Hank — intend to search for Nessie. Ellis and Hank, who could not enlist due to colorblindness and flat feet, seem hell-bent on proving their masculinity.

Persuading readers that civilians would or could choose to cross the Atlantic from the States in war-time takes skill. Gruen’s carefully chosen details insert us squarely into the harrowing voyage. After one ship in their convoy is torpedoed, rescued men “no longer looked human — scorched and misshapen, their flesh melted like candle wax.” When they finally arrive in Drumnadrochit at the Fraser Arms, the irritated proprietor thunders, “You’ve dragged a woman across the Atlantic during a war, then? Are you completely off your head?” His incredulity mirrors the reader’s — and begins to sew doubts about Ellis’ character.

Their forays to observe the loch are amateurish, absurd expeditions. The novel’s real quest turns out to be not a search for a monster but a young woman’s journey to escape a soul-crushing marriage. Maddie finds herself abandoned for days at the chilly inn: “Every time the door opened, I couldn’t help looking, hoping it was Ellis and Hank, but it never was, and I began to accept that they really had left me without two nickels to rub together, no ration book, and no explanation.”

Gruen builds tension by having Ellis’ behavior grow increasingly erratic, fueled by binge drinking and stolen pills (prescribed for his wife’s “nervous condition”). Left behind at the inn repeatedly, Maddie befriends housekeepers Anna and Meg and innkeeper Angus. She starts helping out: “Although I was close to useless to begin with, I was a willing student and they were patient with me. I soon learned how to scrape, not peel, carrots and potatoes, and how to cube turnips.” Gruen’s protagonist convincingly evolves from a hapless, rich gadabout into a serious, capable woman.

Little by little, the writer leads us to the conclusion that Ellis enjoys Hank’s company much more than Maddie’s and that the hunt for the Loch Ness monster is an obsession and an excuse for the two men to be together. Shades of gothic fiction creep into the tale. The implication of Ellis’ repeated references to her mental state slowly dawn on Maddie — and the reader. “You threw out your medication, you’re having delusions, you’re forgetting your station in life — please don’t misunderstand, I’m not blaming you. ... These are all symptoms of your condition,” Ellis says. A hospital is mentioned, along with a frightening treatment.

In a series of touching scenes, the author also depicts a growing bond between Maddie and Angus, a war hero who lost his wife and child. “How much loss are people supposed to bear?” Maddie asks him after news of a villager’s death. He replies, “I’m afraid I don’t know. It seems there’s nothing so good or pure it can’t be taken without a moment’s notice.” Gruen’s delicate portrayal of their relationship is one of the novel’s great pleasures; she excels at showing how two wounded, well-meaning people are able to connect, despite the war.

Does the Loch Ness monster ever appear? Does Ellis get away with his nasty plan? To reveal the answers would be to spoil a satisfying novel, with final chapters full of riveting scenes and poetic justice. The moving epilogue takes place after the war in Europe has come to its bloody close, with Maddie observing, “Life. There it was. In all its beautiful, tragic fragility, there was still life, and those of us who’d been lucky enough to survive opened our arms wide and embraced it.”

Laura Albritton is a writer in Miami.