RAD Book Club Review: At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

This week we discussed ‘At the Water’s Edge’, a historic love story set in World War II Scotland. To celebrate the Scottish element of the novel we feasted on shortbread and oatcakes, one member brought M&Ms to represent Maddie’s ‘heart pills’ and another brought along a monster in solidarity with the Loch Ness monster, the lynchpin of the novel’s plot.

Maddie and Ellis Hyde, disgraced Philadelphian socialites, make the journey across the Atlantic to Scotland after Ellis’s father cuts them off following a family row. Unable to join the armed forces and eager to win back his father’s trust, Ellis decides to find the Loch Ness monster, a venture his father scandalously failed in some years before. Enlisting their friend Hank and passage aboard an American military vessel, Maddie and her husband set sail for Loch Ness.

One of the first things the group discussed was the nature of the book: though it is marketed as a love story, we were unsure of how much the book fitted this genre. There are love affairs within it but the group felt that there simply wasn’t enough romance to call it a love story, and that relationships between characters were not well-drawn enough to explain how they fall in love. Some of the characters were also felt to be more stereotypical than realistic.

Most of the group liked the Scottish elements of the novel, particularly the promise of the Loch Ness monster. Nessie is a mysterious presence in the novel: even the characters are unsure whether the monster is real. The group were divided on whether Nessie really appears in the book, but on the whole the group liked the mysterious element of the monster’s presence. While remaining true to the Scottish legend of the monster and portraying a realistic vision of the Scottish landscape, the group felt that the characters’ switch from English into Scottish Gaelic language was sometimes frustrating as no translation or notes were given, leaving the reader at a disadvantage.

The book also deals with human monsters – it becomes increasingly apparent that some of the characters are not as they first seem. The capacity for human monstrosity is shown through the war unfolding in Europe. The group talked about the choice of time period – World War II forms the backdrop to the story and the reality of rationing and blackouts forces Maddie to become an independent woman, with the help of the locals. We discussed the realities of wartime and the challenges that people would have faced, and what might have driven some people to try and avoid military service. On the whole, though, the group felt that the War wasn’t fully integrated with the more immediate plot and at times appeared wholly separate.

Maddie, our narrator, was a controversial figure for the group. The book describes her journey into maturity. Though Maddie undoubtedly grows as a character from being a pampered socialite with little thought for others, the group felt that her and the other female characters’ development is limited to the stereotypical ‘female’ activities of caring for the sick, cleaning the house and being dependent on a good marriage, meaning the novel’s women are not as progressive as they might be.

Our favourite element of the novel was ‘drawer porridge’, something Maddie and her fellow Americans are served at the local inn. After some discussion, we can confirm that it is indeed a real foodstuff!

While some of the group thought the plot lacked coherence and the characters were two-dimensional, some of the group thought it was easy to dip in and out of and would be great for a light holiday read or something to pick up when you want to relax.