Monday, March 9, 2015

Book Review: "At the Water's Edge" by Sara Gruen

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

While I know most authors dream of achieving astronomical success with their first book, I'd imagine that's a lot of pressure, since everyone's expectations regarding your subsequent books are unfairly ratcheted up, and many will expect you to write similar books over and over again. And reading through some of the reviews I've seen of Sara Gruen's At the Water's Edge, it definitely seems as though many of her fans were expecting a redux of Water for Elephants. (There are some similarities beyond the word "water" in both of their titles, but they are different books.)

It's 1944, deep in the thick of World War II, amidst Philadelphia's high society. Maddie Hyde, her husband Ellis, and his best friend Hank have always been a bit of a trio, despite everyone's hope that one day Hank will settle down with the right woman. Both Ellis and Hank are unable to serve in the war, which causes them no end of disapproval from others, and leads the three to act perhaps a bit more recklessly than they otherwise might, which serves to further alienate Maddie from her wealthy inlaws. But when the trio's scandalous behavior at a fancy New Year's Eve party causes quite an uproar, the resulting arguments lead Ellis' father to throw the couple out of the family home and cut off Ellis' allowance.

With seemingly no other option, Hank convinces Ellis they should head to Scotland to try and find photographic proof of the famed Loch Ness Monster, a quest that Ellis' father once went on, and it led to his public ridicule. The two drag Maddie along, and they soon find themselves (after a treacherous journey across the Atlantic) at an inn in a small Scottish town, in the midst of austerity of the war. When Ellis and Hank leave Maddie alone at the inn to fend for herself as they try and track down the creature, she finds herself questioning the people and the lifestyle that she once knew, and tries to decide in what direction her life should go.

I'll admit I was particularly enamored of Water for Elephants, but I didn't let that color my expectations toward this book. I thought that here Gruen told an interesting story, despite the fact that I found the three main characters generally flighty and unlikable. (The supporting characters, on the other hand, were more colorful and compelling.) Where Gruen excels is her ability to evoke a sense of place and time, and her description of the Scottish highlands was quite vivid. But in the end, although well-told, this book was a little too melodramatic for my liking, but I don't know whether that will disappoint her fans or those who enjoy a dollop of historical romance.

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