BOOK REVIEW: 'At the Water's Edge': No Elephants, Apes, Horses in Sara Gruen's WWII Novel, Just People

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
Sara Gruen ("Water for Elephants", "The Ape House") is first and foremost a story teller. Her ability to do so in a period novel is evident in her new novel, "At The Water's Edge" (Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, 368 pages, $28.00, also available in Kindle e-book edition from
BOOK REVIEW: 'At the Water's Edge': No Elephants, Apes, Horses in Sara Gruen's WWII Novel, Just People

The Second World War is nearing its end in late 1944 and early 1945 -- the period of the novel -- but the participants of course don't know this. The horrors of the war, including the discovery and liberation of the German death camps, are revealed -- as is the Battle of the Bulge and the advance on Berlin by the Soviet forces on one side and the crossing of the Rhine by the Allied forces on the other side.

After disgracing themselves at a high society New Year’s Eve party in Philadelphia in 1944, Madeline Hyde and her husband, Ellis, are cut off financially by his father, a former army colonel who is already ashamed of his son’s inability to serve in the war.  

Ellis Hyde has color blindness, or so he claims.  Ellis and his best friend, Henry (Hank) Boyd -- who's 4F because of his flat feet --decide to redeem the Hyde family honor and regain the  Colonel’s favor  by finding and photographing with still photos and motion pictures Nessie, the famous Loch Ness monster.  The scheme, which involves pulling strings to travel the Atlantic in a Liberty Ship convoy, is financed by Hank Boyd. Maddie, trapped in loveless marriage,  has few options, so she accompanies the two best friends on the trip.
Maddie, Ellis and Hank find themselves in a remote village in the Scottish Highlands, where the locals have nothing but contempt for the privileged interlopers. Except for the wartime blackout curtains and periodic bombing raids by the Germans on the military installation in the town, it's almost like a scene from "Brigadoon."   

With Ellis and Hank away on frequent trips to the loch and nearby Nessie sites, Maddie comes to know the villagers. The friendships she forms with two young women open her up to a larger world than she knew existed. Maddie begins to see that nothing is as it first appears: the values she holds dear prove unsustainable, and monsters lurk where they are least expected. She's attracted to Angus Grant, the mysterious manager of the inn where they're lodged -- and the attraction is mutual. No more -- it's a spoiler!
Storytelling at a high level in a period historical novel is what turned me on to "At the Water's Edge." I'm guessing that women, mostly (they're the book buyers) will find "At the Water's Edge" a perfect book club read, as well as a good vacation one. The author's knowledge of Scotland shines through on every page…the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.
Sara Gruen
Sara Gruen

About the author

Born in Vancouver, B.C. in 1969,  Sara Gruen is a transplanted Canadian  who moved to the United States in 1999 for a technical writing job. Two years later she was laid off. Instead of looking for another job, she decided to take a gamble on writing fiction.  With dual Canadian and U.S. citizenship, Gruen  lives with her husband, three children, two dogs, four cats, two horses, and a goat in North Carolina. Gruen  is a supporter of numerous charitable organizations that support animals and wildlife. Her love for animals comes through in her books: both her first novel, "Riding Lessons", and her second novel, "Flying Changes", involve horses. Gruen's third book, the 1930s circus drama "Water for Elephants" is centered on a traveling circus. Her fourth novel, "Ape House", centers around Bonobo apes. Her website: