At the Water’s Edge

In her stunning new novel, Gruen returns to the kind of storytelling she excelled at in Water for Elephants: a historical timeframe in an unusual setting with a creature who may or may not be the hero of the story.

waters-edge-big Photo: Penguin

416 pages. $19.95 (Trade Paperback)
Release date November 10, 2015

In her stunning new novel, Gruen returns to the kind of storytelling she excelled at in Water for Elephants: a historical timeframe in an unusual setting with a creature who may or may not be the hero of the story.

The mysterious depths – and rumoured inhabitant – of Scotland’s Loch Ness have lured and taunted monster hunters for generations. At its outset, Sara Gruen’s At the Water’s Edge prepares readers for a wartime hunt for the creature, yet gradually the focus turns to disgraced heiress Madeline Hyde and her inner search for truth and happiness.

After the parental money taps are reduced to a trickle, Madeline and her husband, Ellis, secretly depart Philadelphia for Glenurquhart in the Scottish Highlands, with grand dreams of restoring the family honour by capturing footage of the Loch Ness monster. Infamous high-society troublemaker and best friend Hank tags along with film camera in tow, leaving without a word to his long-suffering lady friend Violet.

Ellis and Hank’s search for Nessie soon degenerates into drunken, wasted days on the shores of the loch. Madeline is often left to her own devices at The Fraser Arms, the tiny, rustic inn where she meets strong-willed Scots doing their best to make it through the Second World War unscathed. That Ellis and Hank are both considered unfit for service makes integration even more difficult. Glenurquhart is far from the battlefront, but telegrams bearing the worst possible news make their way to the village, a locale already tinged with unspoken tragedy and sadness.

Gruen paints her cast of characters with charmingly simple strokes. Through brisk, concise descriptions we come to know the barmaids, Anna and Meg, like old friends. You can almost hear their warm Highland brogues as the women, strict yet loving, chastise the local drunken patrons. A play on classic Downton Abbey-style upstairs-downstairs drama, At the Water’s Edge depicts the full-on collision of two worlds as these stubbornly proud Scots refuse to kowtow to their ungrateful American guests.

While Anna and Meg wear their hearts on their sleeves, the inn’s mysterious proprietor, Angus, remains a closed book. Handsome yet impenetrable, and haunted by the ghosts of the loch, Angus and his dark secrets soon come to fascinate Madeline. Navigating differences in class and societal norms of the time, however, makes for difficult interactions.

All but abandoned by her husband, Madeline passes the hours secretly helping out in the hotel – unheard of for a socialite – and wandering the neighbouring forests and shoreline. Along the way, the lines between folklore and reality blur amid Scotland’s ancient magic. Soon the murky waters of the loch reveal more about the citizens of Glenurquhart – and herself – than she could ever have imagined.

Discussion Points for Your Book Club

Dive deeper with these five Book Club Discussion points for Sara Gruen’s At the Water’s Edge:

1. At the Water’s Edge portrays life in American high society during the Second World War, transplanted to bruised and battered Scotland. How do these two worlds co-exist and collide? Was a common ground even possible between these cultures and classes at this time?

2. What effect does folklore have on a place’s culture and identity? Can you think of other creatures - mythological or otherwise – from your own family’s homeland and background?

3. How do the Scottish characters define bravery differently than the Americans, and does Gruen suggest a major cultural difference here? In their search for the monster, do Ellis and Hank demonstrate bravery?

4. Gruen uses several real-life events as plot drivers throughout At the Water’s Edge, taking some liberties with timelines, locations and names. What do you think about rewriting history in the name of dramatic license? Are certain historical events off-limits?

5. Madeline’s forest wandering is marked by the supernatural – the numerology of crows flying past, the search for the monster, and even a potential ghost sighting. Does Madeline believe in the monster and the unexplainable goings-on, or does she look for logical explanations? Is the monster in At the Water’s Edge real?

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