Tag Archives: Scotland

On Sara Gruen’s “At the Water’s Edge”

14 Apr

At the Water's Edge [2015] by Sara Gruen

At the Water’s Edge [2015] by Sara Gruen

Damsels in distress, bearded men with thick accents, giant mythical monsters, and a backdrop of worldwide warfare. No, I’m not talking about the new season of Game of Thrones. I’m talking about the newest novel from the author of Water for Elephants. I’m talking about a young America woman who gets dragged to Scotland during World War II to hunt down the Loch Ness Monster in Sara Gruen’s At the Water’s Edge, which, aside from the gore and the patricide, is practically the same as Game of Thrones anyway.

Rich kids Ellis and Maddie Hyde and their ever-present third wheel Hank Boyd tear through the upper crust parties of Philadelphia, drinking the best champagne and mixing it with the best drugs. But all the pill cocktails in the world can’t drown Ellis’s feelings of inadequacy after being denied enlistment due to his colorblindness. After a scathing confrontation with Ellis’s father that threatens to cut him off from his inheritance, he takes action. Since the best kind of action always involves hunting down cryptids to clear the family name of horrifying, public shame, the three sail off to Scotland to find the infamous Loch Ness Monster. Maddie Hyde narrates as she witnesses Hank’s and her husband’s desperate attempt to prove a myth. She is an unwilling passenger on this wild ride, but, as Maddie is quick to learn, she is as complicit as the two men: they are invaders of the already war-torn lives of the villagers.

Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness

What’s that out behind Urquhart Castle? Is it …? Could it be …? Is that Yeezus? (Photo from “jan zeschky“)

Gruen poignantly describes the era’s ultra-rich and their obliviousness to warfare and suffering. Behind an insurmountable fortress of wealth, the Hydes and their companion are offensively ignorant of the actual turmoil around them. As Ellis and Hyde immerse themselves in their monster-hunting adventures, Maddie’s eyes are opened to reality and her heart changed by the people around her. She soon realizes that–whether or not a massive sea creature lurks beneath the black surface of the loch–a very real domestic monster lurks under the preening surface of her increasingly volatile husband. If only there were a muscular, bearded Scotsman around to save her from it all ….

As fun as a solid, beardy Highland romance sounds, AtWE includes a cast of extremely problematic male characters. (Maybe later, if you’re not doing anything, we can discuss the validity of arguing for male characters’ depth in romance novels that appear to be written for straight women.) Ellis’s growing manifestations of violence and vileness leave little room for his humanity. Gruen shies away from fully exploring his inner demons, of which there are many, abandoning him instead to a fully realized antagonist, who is present in this novel solely to be defeated by the powers of Goodness and True Manliness. Angus Grant provides that stark, haloed relief to Ellis’s blackness. Though the man is gruff and pithy to the point of rudeness, Angus is honorable beyond measure and seems incapable of fault. Both Ellis and Angus are cheated out of their humanity, and seem to only find a place in this novel to be way points for Maddie’s life. This is the type of novel that distorts straight women’s definitions of romance, and, incidentally, for the straight men who presumably want relationships with those straight women.

Milkman among ruins of London

Life carries on despite the desolation meted out by German bombers. (Photo from “Jhayne“)

The art Gruen performs well is toeing the line between mainstream fiction and romance paperback. Some brief lines about classism and a backdrop of one of the most horrific wars of recorded history grounds an otherwise fluffy plot, but one more shirtless Highlander, and we might have needed alternate cover art by Harlequin Enterprises. I tease, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a little romance in brogue. AtWE is predictable in the best kind of way: everything you want to happen happens. Every foreshadowing comes true and every dream is fulfilled. It’s the type of book that hoards come to love because it scratches an itch, and it scratches it thoroughly.

Read It: At the Water’s Edge makes for the perfect read when you’re looking for a good intrigue and saucy romance on that spring break cruise. The historical period of 1940’s Britain makes for a picturesque setting and Sara Gruen is an expert at weaving a compelling, entertaining story of love lost and won.

Don’t Read It: You may not want to venture into the loch’s icy waters with Gruen if you, maybe, have a severe allergy to predictable plots and overwrought tropes. AtWE won’t make you think or astound you with its creativity; it’s purely fun and games with just enough heavy themes to keep the book solidly in the literature section of book stores.

Similar Books: Amy Bloom’s most recent novel Lucky Us tells the story of two sisters struggling through WWII-era American and England. There story crosses countries and decades as the sisters learn new definitions of love and family. I suppose I should also recommend Sara Gruen’s claim to fame, Water for Elephants, though I can’t vouch for anything other than the film adaptation starring the marvelous Christoph Waltz. You can’t say no to this face.

Sara Gruen

Sara Gruen (Photo from Goodreads)

On Alice Munro’s “The View from Castle Rock”

19 Oct
The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro, Nobel Prize winner of 2013.

The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro, Nobel Prize winner of 2013.

Alice Munro has been a long-standing favorite of mine, ever since I read Friend of My Youth and finally understood the beauty of the short story form. Now that she won the Nobel Prize for Literature (applause here), it’s high time I read a book of hers from my shelf. The View from Castle Rock is half short story collection, half historical record. It’s Munro’s exploration into her own past, beginning with William Laidlaw, a superstitious Scot whose descendents would eventually cross the Atlantic and settle in various parts of Canada. Here, Munro proves she is the master of the short story and of the short story collection. Each piece, though separate, is written with the others in mind and is meticulously curated within the book to tell the overarching tale of her quietly heroic family.

Here's Old Town and there's Castle Rock, and I've been there and I just want to brag about that for a second.

Here’s Old Town and there’s Castle Rock, and I’ve been there and I just want to brag about that for a second.

The first story “No Advantages” is an historical preface. William Laidlaw, or Will O’Phaup, and his progeny are painted as legends and troublemakers, men in a modernizing world, and the myth of their lives set the tone for the whole book. I think we can safely take it for granted that many of these characters and events are historically accurate(ish) and are, in fact, the author’s ancestors. They are seen to have lived difficult lives, in comparison with contemporary luxuries (such as indoor jobs and not being beaten with a belt on a regular basis), and always in the forefront of their minds was the idea of America. As it turns out, their “America” was the harsh bush of Canada. In subsequent stories, the Laidlaws establish homesteads in Ontario, returning us to Munro’s familiar territory, and we read about courtships, marriages, deaths, and fox farming.

“How do you kill a trapped fox? You don’t want to shoot him, because the wound left in the pelt and the blood smell spoiling the trap.

“You stun him with the blow of a long, strong stick, and then you put your foot on his heart.” -137, from “Working for a Living”

Munro’s skill shines through in moments like this–moments where another writer might go overboard with gratuitous detail or on the other hand shield from the sensitive eyes of their readers. Munro treats episodes of small terrors with the respect and fascination of an historian, and with the grace of a master writer. Which she is. Even writing this now, even having read many of her books, I’m having trouble pin-pointing the quality Munro possesses that makes all her work so readable and so utterly awe-inspiring. It feels like magic, but I know it’s just her writerly prowess. She’s a badass, through and through.

Within each story, Munro seems to stray back and forth through time, almost aimlessly, and yet somehow ends with a story so touching one must take breaks just to remember how to breath. The collection as a whole, though, plods steadily onward through its lineage of storytellers. It’s the development of a Nobel Prize winner, starting with Will O’Phaup and ending with Alice Munro we know, love, and admire. And envy. Don’t forget envy.

I imagined the first half of the book to basically look like this, except with way more plaid and way less smiling.

I imagined the first half of the book to basically look like this, except with way more plaid and way less smiling.