Book Review: At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

At the Water’s Edge | by Sara Gruen | 368 pages | rating: 3.5/5

At the Waters EdgeThe brief: Set in Scotland against the backdrop of World War II, Gruen’s story follows three upper-class characters (Madeline, Ellis and Hank) on their quest to prove the existence of the Loch Ness Monster. Despite its initial intrigue, the story itself isn’t quite as strong as Gruen’s previous outings (the history here doesn’t feel fluid, rather it seems disjointed and interruptive of the narrative flow) – notably Water for Elephants – but many of her common thematic elements are present (women in peril, domestic violence, animals) to provide familiarity.

Despite this shallow sense of familiarity, there is one glaring flaw in At the Water’s Edge: none of the characters are particularly empathetic. At times when they’re supposed to play to our affections or sensitivities, they’re unlikable or unrelatable. That’s not to say the characters are without intrigue though, because one in particular (Ellis) piqued my interest. The moment my interest was piqued (page 175) was pivotal for my reception of Gruen’s novel. The story would either validate theories about what was to come – or I’d be left feeling underwhelmed. Sadly, I was the latter.

Despite the slight disappointment, Gruen is to be commended for her ability to keep the pages turning. I finished At the Water’s Edge in just over one day. My need to read was fueled by my desires to see what happened to Ellis (more on that in the spoiler section), and by my insatiable curiosity about the monster lurking in the Loch. By the final pages of the novel though, I wondered if I’d set my expectations too high, or if the story, after that pivotal moment, just didn’t mesh with my own ideas.

This leads me to… SPOILER ALERT (stop reading to avoid spoilers)

Immediately, I'd envisioned Eddie Redmayne as "Ellis" in a film adaptation.
Immediately, I’d envisioned Eddie Redmayne as “Ellis” in a film adaptation.

…Ellis, my favorite character in At the Water’s Edge. When the story began, I didn’t find Madeline “Maddie,” Ellis or Hank (the best friend) likable at all. I thought their privileged situations invalidated their complaints, which would seem trivial to anyone beyond/beneath their societal position. Somehow, through Maddie’s story, I warmed to Ellis – who was presented as the perfect gentleman and companion. He’s a man society’s against – and perhaps for that reason alone, I was rooting for him.

As the story progresses though, Ellis undergoes a transformation; he becomes increasingly less desirable as cracks in his façade begin to show (as told through Maddie’s POV). His drug and alcohol abuse becomes linked to his incremental dismissal of Maddie, and his increased violent tendencies. By the novel’s conclusion, this once “ideal” man was ruined, leaving me to believe he harbored secrets at depths parallel to the Loch.

Page 175 – the pivotal moment.

By that point in the novel, Maddie had described her longing for intimacy, noting her unanswered hopes for passion. She’d also described the one intimate encounter between herself and Ellis since their arrival in Scotland (and in the entire novel):

“For a moment, as absurd as it was, I thought he [Ellis] might want to make love, but from his chest movements, I could tell he was starting to cry.” (p. 45)

“I made my way to the bed and set the candle on the table. When I climbed under the covers, Ellis said, ‘What are you doing.'” / “I felt like he’d kicked me in the stomach. ‘I’m just getting warm. Don’t worry. I won’t stay.'” (p. 85)

“I tried to remember the last time we made love, and could not.” (p. 87)

“Ellis stepped in and took my face in his hands, pressing his mouth against mine. He had shaved and applied cologne, a custom concoction he’d been wearing as long as I’d known him, and although his lips remained closed, I could taste toothpaste. His pajamas were silk…He pushed the door shut and slipped his hands around my waist…He backed me against the dresser and pressed his hips into mine. There was no mistaking his intentions…He put his hands on my hips and began grinding against me. I leaned my head back, boldly offering my throat. I had never done such a thing, and when he didn’t kiss it, I wondered if he couldn’t see it in the dark…He crawled in beside me, lifted my nightgown, and arranged himself above me. Then he nudged my legs apart with a knee, balanced on one arm long enough to pull down his pajama bottoms, and entered me. After a few pushes, he collapsed, gasping in my ear. A minute later he rolled off.” (p. 131)

“I wanted to tell him we couldn’t be finished yet, that it wasn’t my shoulder that needed attention, but I couldn’t find the words. I never had, and probably never would, because I wasn’t entirely sure what it was that I needed him to do. I lay wide-eyed in the dark long after he’d crept from my bed and gone back to his own.” (p. 131)

Then, page 175 came – drudging up a set of suspicions and expectations. I wondered if this novel, set in the mid-1940s, would boldly explore (and present) a gay character, as suggested by a brief and fleeting moment:

“When I opened Ellis’s door, I stopped in my tracks, utterly stupefied. It looked as if a bomb had gone off…I couldn’t imagine how he’d managed to create such a mess. Then, with a wave of nausea, I realized he’d done it on purpose…I could think of no other way to approach the mess that wasn’t overwhelming. When I opened his top dresser drawer, I found a photograph of Hank and him sitting on the beach at Bar Harbor, their arms slung casually over each other’s shoulders and grinning into the sun. Beneath it was a photograph of Hank alone, standing shirtless on the deck of a sailboat with his hands on his hips. His chest glistened, his arms and shoulders were muscled, and he smiled mischievously at whoever was behind the camera. There was no picture of me…” (p. 175)

Following this small, but what I considered significant, revelation, the inseparability of Ellis and Hank made sense. Ellis’s colorblindness – and his fabrication of it – made even more sense, as I thought it to be a metaphor for homosexuality. I wondered what would happen to Ellis if this secret that I’d suspected had been revealed – during World War II – in Europe! Searching the Loch for a monster could then take on its own metaphorical meaning (not that it doesn’t) – a much deeper meaning than what ends up being presented. After all, this is Maddie’s story – not primarily Ellis’s, and I think that’s where there’s a narrative mistake(?). I would have preferred that the story to venture in that direction – and to see how Ellis, Maddie and Hank each confronted this inner “monster.”

Complexly exploring such a monumental secret would have provided much needed empathy for all three of the primary characters. It would have added a dynamic and dramatic layer – and a sense of urgency. Ellis’s drug and alcohol dependency and his increasingly violent tendencies would have been somehow validated. Such an exploration would have exponentially eased the struggle I felt to connect with At the Water’s Edge. Instead, Ellis becomes increasingly violent and homicidal for harboring a secret that kept him out of active duty, and in wealth. Sadly, I feel as if Ellis’s ultimate motivation – as published in the novel – is weak and unjustified, leaving the rest of the characters and story to suffer(?).

Maddie’s deviance from Ellis is also (in a way) unjustified – and her relationship with Angus feels rushed from start to finish. Why couldn’t there be more drama – a deeper motivation and easily much darker exploration? I believe this should have been Ellis’s story – not the romantic meandering of a sad, sulking socialite. To Gruen’s credit though, while my suspicions of Ellis are never confirmed as he spirals into a darkness only paralleled by Gruen’s description of the Loch, they’re not explicitly denied. I believe Ellis’s homosexuality, and his relationship to Hank is a subtext that should have been a primary focus. I believe that exploration could still be had in a screenplay treatment (which I hope this novel receives). Hollywood loves a good story – and film, as a medium, presents more obviously quiet opportunities for this exploration.

I simply wish At the Water’s Edge had been bolder.