Friday 23 March 2018

Review: At the Water's Edge - 'a far-fetched follow-up by author of 'Water for Elephants'

Water for Elephants
Water for Elephants
At the Water's Edge

American author Sara Gruen's last novel was Water for Elephants, a New York Times bestseller that made it to the big screen as a movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Twilight heartthrob Robert Pattinson. And the Water for Elephants juggernaut continues: just a few weeks ago, it was announced that it was to be turned into a Broadway musical.

Hardly surprising, then, that Gruen's next offering, At the Water's Edge, found itself namechecked on numerous round-ups of 2015's hotly anticipated novels by critics confident she would be able to repeat the success of her circus-based love story.

The similarities between the two books - and these stretch further than the repetition of a key word in the title - suggest Gruen thought emulating the success of Water for Elephants would be best achieved by sticking to a familiar formula. Both plots revolve around a love triangle and, once again, Gruen has chosen a historical setting, swapping the quirky world of 1930s circus folk for wartime Scotland.

The story begins, however, across the Atlantic among Philadelphia's elite. Newly-wed spoilt brats Maddie and Ellis Hyde drunkenly disgrace themselves at a New Year's Eve party and are cut off financially by Ellis's dad. Colonel Hyde, it transpires, has had his own brush with public humiliation after the authenticity of photographs he claimed to have taken of the Loch Ness monster in 1933 were called into question.

These opening chapters are the novel's best, but when the financially abandoned Maddie and Ellis, accompanied by ever-present third wheel, Hank, decide to head to the Highlands on their own Nessie hunt, the narrative takes a turn for the worse. The reader must first swallow the rather far-fetched notion that, in the middle of WWII, three clueless socialites would hitch a ride across a U-boat infested Atlantic. And once the trio arrive in rural Scotland, the depiction of life in the Highlands is as authentic as something plastered on a tin of shortbread. The promise of the first few chapters is lost in a sea of twee and tweed.

Maddie, Ellis and Hank set up home in rooms above a local pub run by brooding widower Angus and staffed by local girls Anna and Mags, stock characters who are never really fleshed out beyond the innocent gaze of Maddie. The American rich kid might see stereotypes in the villagers she meets, but surely the reader deserves a little more characterisation and depth.

Another victim of Gruen's less-than-subtle narrative brush strokes is the war itself, which pops up every few pages to remind us that 'there is a war going on, you know'. The villagers huddle around the inn's wireless every night to hear the latest reports from the front while, during the day, telegrams bring news of loved-ones lost. There are gas masks, ration books and even an air raid - during which the mysterious and macho Angus single-handedly shoots down an enemy plane. Gruen's handling of all of this feels clumsy and it's hard not to suspect that the war was inserted to give weight to the otherwise gossamer-thin plot.

As Ellis and Hank start their Nessie hunt, it becomes clear to Maddie this trip is merely another form of escapism for the carousing pair, whose drunkenness reaches new heights. Ellis's thin veneer of humanity slips away, revealing the true beast of the story and Maddie's wide-eyed gaze becomes a narrow stare as she realises the monster the man she has married truly is. As her world unravels, the little rich girl breaks free from the shackles of her cosseted life and 'goes native'.

As the novel draws to a close, the monster everyone has been looking for makes a fleeting appearance, one of the less silly elements of the ending. All the other loose ends are neatly tied up as Gruen shepherds Maddie safely from the life she once knew into the arms of another man. If the newly emancipated Maddie had been allowed to set off on her own to forge a new life beyond the pages of the novel, it may have gone a little way to redeeming the story.

Whether Gruen has another Water for Elephants-type bestseller on her hands is still up for debate but it's difficult to imagine she will find the same reception for this flawed and at times simply ridiculous tale.


At the Water's Edge, Sara Gruen, Two Roads, hbk, 496pp, €20.85

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