At The Water’s Edge
Allen & Unwin
Uncorrected proof copy courtesy of the publisher
After they disgrace themselves at a New Year’s Eve party in 1944, Madeline Hyde and her husband Ellis find them cut off by Ellis’ wealthy parents. His father is a former army Colonel who is humiliated by Ellis’ diagnosis of colour blindness which makes him ineligible to serve during the Second World War. Ellis and his best friend, the incredibly wealthy Hank decide that in order to regain the Colonel’s favour they must travel to Scotland and hunt down the famous Loch Ness monster. The Colonel attempted to prove its existence years ago but it was an attempt that resulted in disgrace. They will find the real monster and get the photographic evidence. Madeline is left no choice but to accompany them.
The journey by ship is long and arduous and when they arrive in Scotland they find their accommodations not in line with what they are used to. The town is under rationing and the locals, who have suffered the ravages of war, regard the three foreigners with little but contempt for their privileged Americanism. While Ellis and Hank go off on long jaunts attempting to find and record the monster, Madeline finds herself left alone at their accommodation. Slowly, painstakingly, she begins to form fragile friendships with the locals and through those friendships, begins to find an entirely new world. It’s not one of wealth and privilege, but it’s much more real. As Ellis begins to spiral downward in his futile attempts, Madeline comes to realise just how much of a lie her life has become. But with Ellis’ threats hanging over her head, she may never be free to be with the person she truly loves.
At The Water’s Edge is the latest novel by Sara Gruen, author of Water For Elephants and several other novels. I’ve read Water For Elephants and enjoyed it and so I was really keen to read this, especially when I realised it was set in Scotland, which is one of my favourite settings. It’s a time of war, although for Ellis and Madeline in Philadelphia, they’ve been relatively unaffected. Ellis’ diagnosis means hes exempt from fighting and they can continue their glittering life of socialising and doing little else – until they go a bit too far at a New Years Eve party, invoking the ire of Ellis’ formidable parents. And that leads to them heading halfway around the world for remote Scotland.
Madeline is distinctly out of her comfort zone in Scotland. She’s been used to a certain lifestyle and having multiple people around to pick up her things, having people defer to her. Here, people are just far too busy for that, they have things they need to do. The town is under rationing, most of them are dreading a knock at the door from the postman because everyone knows someone that is away, fighting. Slowly, slowly Maddie begins to slip out of her society lady clothes and into something else. She befriends some of the workers, even assisting them at times when Ellis and Hank are out. As her marriage begins to fall apart, Maddie finds herself longing for a simpler life, a life she could have here in Scotland….if not for Ellis and his increasing threats regarding her mental stability.
Maddie’s evolution as a character is masterful. She adapts remarkably well to their new surroundings, probably because for the first time in her life she probably feels she can be useful, if only someone would let her. She’s had a difficult upbringing, the result of an unhappy marriage between an unstable woman and a cold man and was often used as a pawn. At first Ellis seemed like everything she’d dreamed of – a rich prince who would keep her in style but it isn’t long after they arrive in Scotland that Maddie realises Ellis has been keeping quite a few secrets from her and that he’s definitely not the prince she took him to be. And even worse, he has the ammunition he needs to section her for mental health, just as he’s threatening. It’s still a time where a husband’s word is law and Ellis holds all of the power and when he realises Maddie is straying from her role as perfect society wife, he isn’t afraid to wield it in an attempt to get her to return to line.
This book had me hooked from the first page and I absolutely loved it. I loved Maddie – she wasn’t much to like at the start, shallow and selfish, self-absorbed and lazy. But she was a product of the wealthy, with the way she had been raised. In Scotland she is able to find herself, to realise that she can actually do things and doesn’t need various people around to do things for her. She forms interesting friendships with Anna and Meg, the workers at the inn where they stay. I think that this is a nice exploration of two halves of society – Ellis, Hank and co have all the money they could ever ask for and a glittering lifestyle. But they’re vain and childish, spending their days drinking and completely ignoring the fact that there’s a war on. They expect everyone to wait on them hand and foot, as if that was their very purpose for being born. And yet even though the workers at the inn don’t have much in the way of money they have a town that looks after their own, where each and every person is a part of it and would help in a second. In this town, I think Maddie finds the sort of family she’s always yearned for – the one who will help her, who will simply be there for her as no one has ever done in the past. The subtle love story is also perfection, with both of them managing to find happiness in lives that have served up much misery.
I really enjoyed this. It’s reminded me how much I must track down those other books on Sara Gruen’s backlist.
Book #85 of 2015