I am sure that anyone who loved Water for Elephants, and there were many, gobbled up Sara Gruen’s next book, At the Water’s Edge. Or it is on the to be gobbled list, probably on the short to be gobbled list, to be precise. Even though I was not as crazy about Water for Elephants as others professed to be, At the Water’s Edge still jumped into my arms at the library in its lovely crackly book jacket, begging for its first foray into someone’s home.
Jumped in a few weeks late, actually. It would have been a perfect book to include in my post about three books to increase knowledge and depth of understanding about how civilians in Europe powered through the Second World War. The main strength in this novel lies in it’s setting of Scotland near and at the end of World War II, and in the fact that some of the main characters, Maddie, Ellis and Hank started out in the very removed United States, as members of the upper crust, who were further removed still from the realities of many people’s lives at that time all over the globe. This stark contrast of being a member of the upper crust in America to living in a war ravaged country as an increasingly regular person helped Maddie as the main character to change, grow, and self actualize. She goes from opulence to rationing and a small room with no maids, from an ocean away from war into shelter during an air raid. She trades her coiffed hair to wrapping it in rags and her diamond comb for a gas mask. She listens to the thousands upon thousands of deaths on the front and in the camps and sees injuries first hand. She goes into the bleak and cold Scotland from the warmer and brighter United States. And you love her all the more for it because she does not complain, rather, she adapts and learns from it. Whereas in Water for Elephants the main character joins the circus as an escape, in this book the protagonist goes from being physically safe and sheltered into a much more physically precarious situation. I say physically safe, because actually, it is in Scotland where she trades her physical safety for a time but gains an emotional safety that she never had during her tenure in America.
The other element that is added in just the right amount of the supernatural. If a reader is interested in the book because of the main character’s husband’s and his friend’s wish to provide evidence of the Loch Ness Monster then it is a safe bet that they will like a bit of a ghost story. And there is a gratuitous bit of ghost story and superstition. It fits right in with the setting.
Gruen uses the backdrop of the war and the times to intensify the stakes and conflicts and increase the main character’s chance to really find and learn about herself. The story could have gone on without it having to be placed at the end of the Second World War, but the setting makes it all the more intense and poignant. She uses settings in this and in Water for Elephants to illuminate and examine issues of belonging and finding true love and ones true self. I actually liked this book more than I did Water for Elephants, and if you liked Water for Elephants, there are enough similarities between the novels for At the Water’s Edge to be recommended as well.