My mother routinely begs me to write a story with a happy ending. “Write a book that makes people feel good!” she pleads. Sara Gruen’s new novel, “At the Water’s Edge,” delivers on both counts.
Gruen, author of four previous novels, including the bestseller “Water for Elephants,” which translated beautifully into a hit film, is at the top of her narrative form in this latest book. “At the Water’s Edge” is wholly diverting and well written. I read it in one sitting, looking up occasionally to be sure my 1-year-old daughter hadn’t put some sharp object in her mouth while scooting around the den. I was once (briefly) in a book club that rejected many books (mostly my suggestions) due to “bad language” and/or the endorsement of “bad morals.” Gruen’s novel would never raise such objections.
This is part of the problem. The story is well told but predictable, and the dilemmas it raises feel too easily solved. Maddie is a socialite living in Philadelphia during the Second World War, deliberately unaware of what’s happening overseas. “My life consisted of waking at noon, meeting up with Hank and Ellis, and then bouncing from eye-opener to pick-me-up to cocktail to nightcap, and staying out all night at dances or parties before starting all over again the next day.” This all changes when her husband, the irrepressible, hard-drinking Ellis, exempt from service as a result of his colorblindness, decides to travel to Scotland with his “friend” Hank to find and record the existence of the Loch Ness Monster, an honor to which his disapproving father, “the Colonel,” has already laid claim. Maddie unsuccessfully attempts to dissuade him. “I pointed out, as gently as I could, what I’d hoped was obvious: that it made no sense whatsoever to throw ourselves into the middle of an ocean crawling with U-boats on a quest to find a monster that probably didn’t even exist.”
The three amigos arrive at a run-down inn in the Scottish Highlands where windows are blackened because of air raids; milk and food are rationed; hot baths are nonexistent. Maddie is immediately frightened by the owner, Angus, the mysterious keeper of this outpost, a Highland Heathcliff who manages to be smoldering while grumping about. It will not take readers long to figure out with whom Maddie will experience her “sexual awakening” (as mentioned in the book’s jacket copy). As Hank and Ellis track the monster, leaving Maddie to fend for herself (for reasons a discerning reader will anticipate), she begins to empathize with the downtrodden yet goodhearted inn keeping staff, even going so far as to assist with household chores. As Maddie begins to unpack her traumatic childhood — including a family history of madness and her anorexia — as well as the truth about her marriage, Ellis devolves into an abusive drunk, a “monster” far more dangerous than the one he seeks and from whom Maddie will struggle to separate. Even with a final plot twist, the novel never causes the reader to question whether or not she will succeed.
That Gruen appeals to readers is unquestionable. Her books have been translated into almost 50 languages, and her books have sold 10 million copies worldwide. “At the Water’s Edge” will likely fly off bookstore shelves, and for legitimate reasons. Gruen is a natural storyteller. Is it a great story? Yes. Is it enough? I’m not sure.
As a child I read a series of historical novels named after girls — Emily, Sara, Susan — that chronicled the journeys of adventurous young women from different centuries; one pretends to be a boy so she can join the gold rush in California; another is a high-society teenager whose life is disrupted by war. Each book involved romantic liaisons (with vaguely Christian undertones) that played out in a way similar to the romance between Maddie and Angus, and there was comfort and thrill in that.
I still crave the escape that comes from encountering a fictional landscape, but I don’t want tidy endings. My mother wants books that make her feel good about the world. I crave the thrill of original, beautiful language and surprising metaphor. Although Gruen’s book features some lovely passages, in many places the prose feels plodding, the plot twists too reminiscent of a formulaic romance novel. During a sex scene Maddie is “shot through with an ecstasy so intense I thought my heart might actually stop.” Characters dissolve into “furious shrieking,” or release a “primal scream.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with these descriptions, but they seem too easy, too good to be true. Gruen’s characters are vividly drawn and her scenes perfectly paced, but I was left wanting more. The novel tells a gripping, compelling story, but the heroes and heroines are too virtuous, the villains too villainous, and the plot too easily unraveled.
I grant Gruen her readability, her accessibility, and her well-deserved success. Although “At the Water’s Edge” is not a book I wish I’d written, there is great value in a novel with a happy ending that makes you feel good about the world.Emily Rapp Black’s most recent book is “The Still Point of the Turning World.”