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.
I was attracted to At the Water’s Edge mainly due to the Scottish wartime setting and I was not disappointed as Gruen captured life in the village very well although it did get a bit twee with the supernatural elements. While the premise is set around the search for the Loch Ness monster, the story is really about Maddie and her search to find herself. When we first meet Maddie, she is happy to go along with whatever husband says and seems quite powerless to stand on her own two feet. The more time Maddie spends alone and then in the company of her new friends, she begins to grow as a person and she becomes much stronger. I loved Maddie’s friendship with Meg, the barmaid, and Anna, the housekeeper, and is was lovely to see their positive influence over Maddie.
Maddie also grows close to the innkeeper, Angus, who has a tragic past but their romance does not happen until quite late in the novel so it felt like it was a secondary relationship to her friendship with the ladies. The novel opens with the suicide of a young woman called Mhairi who has just given birth to a still born daughter and has lost her husband in the war. It takes a while for the dots to be connected but we eventually realise Angus is the lost husband who did actually survive the war only to discover his wife and child are dead. Angus is a bit enigmatic for much of the novel which I will admit is intriguing but the romance with Maddie seems like an afterthought as it happens so late on. I’m not sure if the romance was even necessary as Maddie was beginning to feel so much more independent on her own.
There are a few supernatural moments considering we are by the shores of Loch Ness but some of the scenes had me rolling my eyes in disbelief more than anything else. As well as the alleged monster, we have the ghost of Mhairi to contend with and the appearance of a snaggle-tooth woman whose very appearance indicates a death is about to happen. The villagers are a superstitious lot who view strangers with distrust so we are edging a tad into cliche territory as Ellis and Hank are also your typical brash Americans who think they can buy whatever they want.
The last few chapters dissolve into farce as Maddie finally stands up to her husband but is threatened with being forcibly placed into a mental institution after Ellis discovers Maddie has inherited a fortune from her estranged father. Ellis conveniently gets his comeuppance as something from the loch, probably Mhairi’s spirit, attacks him by the shore of the loch and Maddie is free to have her new life with Angus. I’ve heard good things about Sara Gruen but this book was rather disappointing.