It’s been several years now since I first read Water for Elephants and while I haven’t had a chance to read Ape House yet (it’s still on my library wish list and I will probably get to it later this year), I jumped at the chance to preview Sara Gruen’s latest novel, At the Water’s Edge.
As World War II rages in Europe, Maddie Hyde, her husband, Ellis, and their best friend, Hank Boyd, are safely enjoying their wealth back in the US, both men having been rejected from serving for medical reasons. Except it isn’t their wealth (or not entirely). Ellis and Maddie live off an allowance from his parents and when their behavior threatens to get them cut off entirely, they embark on a dangerous and foolish plan to cross the ocean, find the Loch Ness monster, and redeem the family name. The journey brings them face-to-face with the realities of the war they’ve been protected from and, for Maddie, proves to be an eye opening and life changing experience.
As I began reading, one of the aspects of the story that particularly struck me was the complex and realistic portrayal of parent/child relationships. Both Maddie and Ellis have difficult relationships with their parents but for very different reasons (which become clearer as the book progresses). Maddie specifically is a wonderful example of the desire to both set oneself apart from one’s parents but also to protect them and their memory from the judgment of others. She has little affection for either of her manipulative and harsh parents and tries to distance herself from them in childish and ill-conceived ways. As she learns more about the world and begins to see through more of the façades that she’d simply accepted before, she begins to understand and come to terms with the nature of her relationships with both parents and, if it’s too late for those relationships to be altered, she is able to move on from them. The idea that children must bear the burden of their parents’ sins is an old but relatable one and the fact that it goes hand in hand with the idea that only those who are part of a family have the right to criticize it is what makes it so complex.
Another aspect of the novel that I loved was the positive female relationships. Maddie admits that she didn’t have very many close female friendships growing up for various reasons. So when she winds up spending so much time with the female staff at the inn in Scotland while her husband and their friend take off without her, it’s interesting to see the impact these women have on her developing sense of self. While the growing attraction between Maddie and the mysterious property manager, Angus Grant, can be sweet, it is also predictable (and a little rushed). But it is through her relationships with Meg and Anna that Maddie really grows as a person and the way that the women come together to support and protect one another is beautifully written. In fact, I almost with that the romance with Angus were left out entirely; it can easily undermine the completely personal reasons for Maddie to address the issues in her marriage and the way of thinking she grew up with. I think the message would have been more powerful without everything wrapped up neatly with no loose ends fairy tale ending.
At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen will be available for purchase March 31, 2015.