A Journalist's Archive

At The Water's Edge
Sara Gruen
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          July, time to sit back and relax in the shade with a tall drink and an upscale romance novel. This one transports you across the pond to Scotland. “At the Water’s Edge,” by Sara Gruen may start out sad, but like all romance stories, it ends in blissful happiness as the protagonist, Maddie Hyde, finds the perfect man.
          Drumnadrochit, Scotland, February 28, 1942: The story opens with Màiri Grant standing before a headstone inscribed with names of her infant daughter and husband. Shortly thereafter, consumed by the painful loss of those closest to her, she descends into the icy waters of Loch Ness.
          Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, December 31, 1944: A massive New Year’s Eve party is underway at the home of General and Mrs. Pew. Attendees include Ellis and Maddie Hyde and their friend Hank Boyd. All three can best be described as “the idle rich;” young, good looking, and without a care in the world. During the course of the evening, they hatch a ridiculous plan to head to Scotland, in search of the Loch Ness Monster. Years earlier Ellis’ father, Colonel Hyde, gained world-wide fame, followed by ridicule, for claiming to have snapped a picture of the beast.
          After hours of indulging in “the bubbly,” the trio’s behavior turns downright obnoxious. It ends with them rolling around in the street in front of the Pew’s home during the wee hours of 1945. Their less-than-respectable demeanor does not go unnoticed by Mrs. Pew, who quickly phones Ellis’ parents the following morning to report their debauchery.
          With throbbing heads, Ellis and Maddie remain in bed until 7pm on New Year’s Day. Descending the staircase, they are greeted by the cold, damning eyes of Edith and Colonel Hyde. Maddie says, “In our set, battles were won by sliding a dagger coolly in the back, or by the quiet turn of a screw.” Voices are never raised. So the couple is astounded when the Colonel begins yelling, declaring them to be “loathsome degenerates… useless members of society.” He ends his tirade by ordering them to leave his home immediately.
          Gruen’s portrayal of “upper-class snobbery” is more often associated with the British.  But it isn’t that far-fetched to attribute the same characteristics to the wealthy of Rittenhouse Square, especially before the end of WWII. On either side of the ocean, the most important factor in high-class society was “appearances;” more commonly known as the “what will people think?” syndrome.
          Most men Hank’s and Ellis’ age were either in uniform, or employed in the war effort at home. They bypassed their military obligation after being declared 4F, “unfit for duty.” Hank for being flat-footed, and Ellis for colorblindness that went mysteriously “undetected until he tried to enlist.” As for working in a military industry, neither could be bothered. They both cry in their champagne over their fate, but their laments appear somewhat dubious, especially to the Colonel.
          Three days later, the trio set off for Scotland, having procured berths on a merchant ship sailing in a convoy of Navy vessels. One day before reaching a Scottish naval base, German U-Boats strike, setting one ship ablaze, horribly burning many of its sailors. This was their first introduction to the realities of war.
          But the Scottish people had been enduring the war for years. Blackouts, air raids, rationing of food and all material items needed by the military, and the fear a postman would show up at the door with that dreaded telegram, were all part of their daily lives. Yet when the three Americans checked into “The Fraser Arms,” a small pub and hotel in Drumnadrochit, they expected to find the same luxuries as they would back home. Never appreciating how lucky they were to find an establishment with one indoor bathroom, and the occasional bit of heat.
          As Ellis and Hank set off in their quest to find Nessie, Maddie is left behind to wander the small village. There is little to see apart from the post office, a few stores and an estate, “Craig Gairbh,” where soldiers are trained and billeted. Bored and longing for social interaction, she offers to help those working at the hotel. Only then does Maddie begin to learn what is truly important in life.
          There’s Anna McKenzie with a “sturdy frame, pleasant expression, and thick auburn hair swept into a snood.” Besides making breakfast and cleaning the rooms, Anna runs her family’s farm. A job her three brothers did before the war; one has already been killed, and the other two are still on the frontlines.
          What Anna serves guests depends on how much she likes them. When Ellis and Hank do show up for meals, they often look enviously at Maddie’s food and tea. First-time-brewed tea leaves are reserved for those Anna finds “worthy.” And the men are fed “beet root sandwiches” while Maddie dines on trout.
          Next is Meg, a redheaded bombshell who works in the “Forestry Corps” during the day, and behind the bar at night. She lost her entire family “four years earlier in the Clydebank Blitz.” Still, she remains optimistic that life will improve once Hitler is put in his place. For now, she has her eyes set on a Canadian soldier, Rory.
          Then there is Angus Grant, with his steely blue eyes and black beard. He’s a silent man who never speaks about why he is no longer in combat. By day, he trains soldiers in hand-to-hand combat. In the evening, he runs the hotel for the proprietor who is still on the battlefield. In his spare time, he culls the wildlife from the grounds around Craig Gairbh to help feed the locals.
          As the days pass, Maddie can’t help but notice the differences between her superficial society and the bonds people form in the small Scottish village. She undergoes a metamorphism, leaving her self-indulgent past behind to emerge as a compassionate woman. Unfortunately, Ellis and Hank continue to treat everyone they encounter as servants.
          Gruen’s story-telling ability is always superb. Her most successful book, “Water For Elephants,” is an allegorical tale that compares the mistreatment of circus elephants to that of senior citizens. “At the Water’s Edge” appears to be nothing more than a well-written romance novel, but it comes with a subtle message. Frivolously-spent wealth begets a depraved spirit. Purposefully-spent riches create a better world.
          That’s not a bad lesson to learn as you indulge yourself in a few hours of romantic bliss. Enjoy!

First published in The New Falcon Herald
Article Copyright © 2015 Bluestack Consulting, Inc.
All Rights Reserved