On a family trip at the age of 12, Sara Gruen fell in love with a ruined castle in the Scottish Highlands. Thirty years later the Canadian writer, who now lives in North Carolina with her family, came across an article connecting that castle to the nearby Loch Ness and its mysterious monster, reminding her of that spot’s allure. She promptly booked a research trip to northern Scotland, and she reports that the ideas for a new book streamed out.
The result of that research is Gruen’s new novel “At the Water’s Edge” (2015). The story opens in Philadelphia in January 1945 when most young men are off fighting the war. But Maddie, a socialite with a “nervous condition,” and her husband, Ellis, along with their friend, Hank, are living a life filled with lavish parties, drunken mischief and grand schemes. The two men have avoided military service with questionable conditions—one, supposedly, is colorblind and the other, flat-footed—and they are eager to escape the judgments of others. They convince Maddie to accompany them to Scotland to get definitive, photographic proof that the Loch Ness Monster exists.
The three are confronted with the realities of war on the voyage, as well as in the living arrangements when they arrive. Most multi-unit buildings in the village now house wounded soldiers and civilians, so the only lodging available to them is a small inn with a snarly proprietor, Angus. Ellis and Hank are unimaginably rude and rowdy among the locals, but Maddie suffers silently. Her seasickness keeps her dizzy for days, the rationed food is inedible and there is no such thing as a warm bath. On their first lake excursion, the men find Maddie incompetent and, for reasons soon to be revealed, from that day on they leave her back in the inn.
Maddie immerses herself in the daily life of the inn. Though she’s led a pampered existence and is incapable of taking care of herself, she is willing to learn. From this early point on, the story becomes surprisingly predictable. Anna, the housekeeper, accepts Maddie’s offer to help with the cooking and cleaning and teaches her the necessary skills. Meg, the earthy and hardworking barmaid, opens Maddie’s eyes to a different way of thinking and living. And then there’s the gruff, bearded Angus with a good heart and a tragic personal story; you don’t have to be a seasoned romance-novel reader to know where that is going.
I remember Gruen’s 2007 “Water for Elephants” as a joy to read, with circus life in the 1930s coming alive with the colors, sounds and language of life under the big top. I had hoped to become similarly immersed in the atmosphere of the misty, waterfront lands of the Scottish Highlands, but sadly, I was not. And anyone looking for a historical novel, as suggested by cover material, will be disappointed. Wartime events are often clumsily planted into the story. Gruen is a gifted storyteller and Maggie is an appealing character, so the story has some appeal. Just lower your expectations.