In her stunning new novel, Gruen returns to the kind of storytelling she excelled at in Water for Elephants: a historical timeframe in an unusual setting with a moving love story. Think Scottish Downton Abbey.
After embarrassing themselves at the social event of the year in high society Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve of 1944, young couple Maddie and Ellis Hyde are cut off by his wealthy father. The only way for Ellis to regain his father’s respect is to succeed in a venture where his own father failed: he will hunt the Loch Ness monster. Along with Ellis’s best friend, Hank, they hitch a ride on a ship across the Atlantic and head for the highlands of Scotland. Spoilt, uppity and unaccustomed to the real world, they struggle to adapt to their new surroundings in the spartan inn where they have taken rooms. Maddie, we’re told, suffers from a nervous disorder, and is encouraged by Ellis to self-medicate and to shirk physical activity. However, having never put a comb through her hair or bought anything ‘off the rack’, she soon revels in the normality of a day’s work and fending for herself. Ellis is neurotic and brutish, and has escaped conscription because he is colour-blind. Hank is flat-footed and he, too, has not seen battle. The camaraderie between the two men suggests their feelings run deeper than friendship, but that would have been too predictable. It is Maddie who is our underdog and unlikely heroine of the story. Maddie is accustomed to snubs, her own childhood was tainted by scandal when her mother, a bolter, ran off with another man and returned to her father when the affair ended. When she learns the skill of self-sufficiency, she gains respect from others, and respect for herself, and she is determined not return to her old, frivolous life. Having realised she is stronger than people think, and with Ellis trying to convince her that she is mentally unstable (a gaslight theme emerges), Maddie finds refuge in the unlikeliest place. Where the two men flounder, she thrives.
Gruen’s impeccable historical research brings the plot down to earth and grounds the larger-than-life characters. Her narrative speaks directly to the reader and is without fuss or ceremony. Intriguing and, at times, suspenseful, At the Water’s Edge is a compelling tale of love, loss and the resilience of the human spirit.