For Christmas, I received from Will a paperback copy of the book At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen. I was familiar with another of her books (Water for Elephants, which I really enjoyed), so I was excited to read this new one by an author whose work I knew I already liked. At that time (Christmas), I was in the middle of another book, so I had to finish it before I dove into this one. But I was so looking forward to this one that I finished the other quickly so I could begin reading soon.
The copy of the book that I have is the “Random House Reader’s Circle” edition, which means it includes questions for a book club in the back. Since I’m not a member of a book club, I decided that I’d work through those answers myself here on the blog. (As a side note, I’m going to try to make the Book Club a monthly feature here. That will keep me reading as well as give me food for thought on the books I read rather than being a passive “traveler” on those journeys.) There are 10 questions, and they’re pretty involved, so I’m going to break them up into two posts. But first, let me tell you about the book – just in case you haven’t read it.
From the back cover:
In January 1945, when Madeline Hyde and her husband, Ellis, are cut off financially by his father, a retired army colonel who is ashamed of his son’s inability to serve [militarily], Ellis decides that the only way to regain his father’s favor is to succeed where the Colonel very publicly failed – by hunting down the famous Loch Ness monster. Leaving her sheltered world behind, Maddie reluctantly follows Ellis and his best friend, Hank, to a remote village in the Scottish Highlands. Gradually, the friendships Maddie forms with the townspeople open her up to a larger world than she knew existed. Maddie begins to see that nothing is as it first appears, and as she embraces a fuller sense of who she might be, she becomes aware not only of darker forces around her but of life’s surprising possibilities.
Because of the nature of this post, I must declare a Spoiler Alert.
1. The novel takes place during World War II. Is the war setting a distraction or does it contribute to the success of the novel? Would changing the time frame change the meaning of the novel? How did the austerity of the times affect Maddie, who was used to a life of luxury?
I think the was setting was a huge contribution to the novel. The changes that happened within Maddie, the main character, wouldn’t have been as rich without that setting behind it. That setting was necessary to push her into experiencing the things she did. I think changing the time setting would cause problems in the execution of the story.
The austerity of the times affect Maddie in ways that I don’t think even she expected. She got to see first hand the horrors of war. She experienced the fear of spending time in a bomb shelter during air raids. She met soldiers, without whom she might never have truly understood what was going on around her, despite her location. All of these experiences contribute to the character she becomes by the epilogue.
2. “What I learned over the past year was that monsters abound, usually hiding in plain sight.” Monsters come in all different forms in At the Water’s Edge. What are some of the monsters in the novel? How are they different from what you might expect?
There are two obvious answers to the first question: “Nessie” (though that name never makes it into the book) and Ellis.
The Loch Ness monster is obviously a main element in the book because without it – or the idea of it, anyway – Maddie, Hank, and Ellis would never have traveled to Scotland. If they hadn’t traveled to Scotland, the story that happened would never had taken place in their lives.
Ellis is a monster because of his chemical dependencies. His addiction to prescription painkillers and alcohol make him so frightening because you (the reader) and Maddie (the main character) never know which version of him you’re going to get. That can be the scariest kind of monster, I think.
There are minor monsters in the book as well. Rory, one of the Canadian lumberjacks in town as a soldier, is a monster who represents domestic violence. World War II is a monster. Even the monster of suicide makes an appearance.
As for how they’re different than what the reader might expect, that varies between the two. With the Loch Ness monster, it’s different because it seems to almost “know” a person’s intentions when they visit the Loch. (I’m going with the assumption here that the monster in the story is real.) It treats Hank and Ellis very differently than it treats Maddie, therefore making it not such a “monster” after all. With Ellis, the fact that he’s a monster at all is unexpected. He starts the novel as a carefree, fun husband for Maddie. By the end, he’s so awful that you kind of hope Maddie goes through with Meg and Anna’s (her Scottish friends) suggestion to poison him (but only in a “he’s an awful fictional character” kind of way – I’d never feel this way about a real person, no matter how awful they were).
3. Throughout At the Water’s Edge, Maddie transforms from a woman who is spoiled, naive, and helpless to one who is brave and capable. What and who are the major influences that led her to change? What are the biggest lessons Maddie learns throughout the course of the novel?
Ironically, I think perhaps Ellis (her husband) is the catalyst for Maddie’s transformation, at least indirectly. If he hadn’t dragged her to Scotland, she never would have met Meg, Anna, and Angus (the staff at the inn where they stay). If he hadn’t left her there for days on end several times during the course of the novel, she never would have developed relationships with those characters. And those relationships, along with her seeing the affects of the war with her own eyes, are the major influences leading to her change.
I think the biggest lesson she learns is compassion. As the question states, she begins the novel spoiled and naive. By the end – honestly by just a few chapters in, when they get off the boat in Scotland – she’s already learning compassion and caring, especially for people who have been hurt, in the war or otherwise.
4. Discuss the novel’s ambiguity concerning the supernatural. How does Sara Gruen blend mystical elements into the narrative’s realism? Did Ellis and Hank find the Loch Ness monster after all?
The blend of the supernatural (ghosts and the Loch Ness monster) into the “reality” of the characters’ lives is lovely and seamless. Maddie experiences the lack of supernatural during her “workday” at the loch with Hand and Ellis. Fully expecting to see the monster, she jumps and shouts at every little thing, and none of them turn out to be the monster. But then, when she least expects it, during a non-working trip to the water, something pushes her out of it. Is it the monster? Is it Mairi, Angus’s wife who committed suicide in the loch three years before? We, and Maddie, never find out for certain.
As for Ellis and Hank finding the monster, I don’t think they did – and not just because it’s a fictional monster. I think they truly believed perhaps they would find it, but the scene near the end of the novel where they have a model they’ve built based on locals’ stories that they’re getting ready to film tells me that they never saw the real monster.
5. Do you think Maddie and Ellis were ever truly in love? What did you think of Ellis? Did you empathize with him? Did Ellis change over the course of the novel or did the changes all take place within Maddie?
I think Maddie was in love with Ellis, but I don’t think he ever returned the sentiment. I think she was just convenient for him. He needed her in order to prove to his parents that he was independent and didn’t need their approval anymore. He liked her, sure, but their marriage was all about him.
My thoughts of Ellis changed over the course of the book. In the beginning, he seemed fine. I had no reason to suspect that he would end up as awful as he did. Did I empathize with him? No, not really, especially as I learned more and more about him. Ellis was a self-centered, drug-abusing jerk. No empathy from me, not even during his final scene.
I don’t think Ellis changed as the story progressed. The changes were definitely all within Maddie. It may seem like Ellis changed, but that was only because as Maddie became more aware of the things around her, she saw him for what he really was.
I’ll be back next week with my thoughts to other five Book Club questions on this novel.