When a trio of privileged young socialites set off to find the Loch Ness monster in a war-torn zone, they instead discover the monsters hidden in their midst in Sara Gruen’s At the Water’s Edge. The Second World War is on, and for Ellis Hyde, proving the Loch Ness monster’s existence is a way to validate his father’s sighting years ago, defend his family’s honour, and protect himself from accusations of cowardice for avoiding the draft due to his colour-blindness. His wife Maddie and their best friend Hank reluctantly come along for the ride, leaving behind the safety of their estates for the centre of a battlefield.
I love the symbolism in this novel — their quest for the Loch Ness monster is framed by the very real spectre of Hitler destroying the world in his campaign of hate. The monster symbology becomes personal as well, as Maddie begins to see a different side of Ellis in his obsession with his quest.
The story is very much about Maddie and her growth as a character. While Ellis and Hank go off daily to search for the monster, Maddie is left alone in their temporary home, and has to deal with the reality of the villagers’ lives around her. I love how she develops from someone who is completely oblivious to her privilege to a strong, self-sufficient young woman. Their quest is immediately a source of scorn, as the people around them are too busy trying to survive various air raids and deal with the loss of their loved ones to even think of wasting time on chasing an imaginary creature. Of the three socialites, Maddie is the most sensitive to these responses and immediately feels embarrassed, though she doesn’t quite understand the full extent of their insensitivity until she gets to know the villagers a bit better.
In contrast, Ellis and Hank remain fixated on the monster, and barely make an effort to adapt to the circumstances. This is fascinating from a symbolic perspective, with the monster motif made personal, but it’s also a bit of a shame as their characters — Ellis in particular — fairly quickly devolves into a caricature of himself. There is little depth to his character, and virtually no development.
A revelation near the end had the potential to add texture to Ellis’ character, possibly even cast a sympathetic light on his motives. But it was framed with such a disturbing confession that it mostly seemed as just another bit of proof of monstrousness, which was such a shame.
That being said, I love what Gruen has done with Maddie’s character. It’s not easy to step out of one’s comfort zone — and then to be shunted aside for some whimsical adventure — but it was fantastic seeing the character rise to the occasion, and seeing her come to terms with the reality beyond the world she’s always known.
Thank you to Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.