You know when you hear about books that are so far in your wheelhouse you think you could use a new wagon just to fit all the wheels on? Okay, that metaphor is kind of a stretch.
But, really, I have this mental checklist of ingredients that go into the recipe for the ideal fiction novel--this is based on my subjective opinion only, but you wouldn't be reading if you didn't like my slant of subjectivity. And, let me tell you, At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen has SO MANY of the ingredients in the perfect fiction recipe.
- Set during World War II
- Told from the female protagonist's perspective (her name is Maddie Hyde)
- Elements of magical realism (Loch Ness Monster!)
- At least one certifiable psychotic character
- A sexy man who is characterized as being sexy by the presence of the trifecta (undeniable badassery, a brooding sensibility, and scars. LOTS OF SCARS.)
- Sweet, sweet revenge that makes you want to clap your hands sore
Of course, not all these are listed on the book jacket, but now you know why I couldn't put the book down! It just had one hook after another.
Here's the book jacket synopsis that captured my attention (from Goodreads):
After embarrassing themselves at the social event of the year in high society Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve of 1942, Maddie and Ellis Hyde are cut off financially by Ellis’s father, a former army Colonel who is already embarrassed by his son’s inability to serve in WWII due to his being colorblind.
To Maddie’s horror, Ellis decides that the only way to regain his father’s favor is to succeed in a venture his father attempted and very publicly failed at: he will hunt the famous Loch Ness monster and when he finds it he will restore his father’s name and return to his father’s good graces (and pocketbook). Joined by their friend Hank, a wealthy socialite, the three make their way to Scotland in the midst of war. Each day the two men go off to hunt the monster, while another monster, Hitler, is devastating Europe. And Maddie, now alone in a foreign country, must begin to figure out who she is and what she wants.
The novel tells of Maddie’s social awakening: to the harsh realities of life, to the beauties of nature, to a connection with forces larger than herself, to female friendship, and finally, to love.
If Sara Gruen's name sounds familiar, it's because her highly acclaimed first novel was the incredible best-seller Water for Elephants. (I'm starting to wonder if she has a fixation on water, but, hey, she's rocking it.) I have to say, a lot of hype about a book tends to turn me off, but the hype for Water for Elephants was well-deserved. I only hope At the Water's Edge gets half as much hype because I enjoyed it even more.
Admittedly, I did think the novel started a bit slow. I was about 9 chapters in when I started wishing the pace would pick up, but when it did, it really, really did. The whole time I was thinking it was taking Maddie, Ellis, and Hank ages to get to Loch Ness in Scotland, Gruen was dropping subtle hints about the dire nature of their quest and quietly showing the reader the many red flags about Hank and Ellis.
What started out as a seemingly normal trio of friends slowly--then quickly--unravels to reveal lies, deceit, and Ellis's sociopathic greed which he would sooner let destroy him than give it up. Secrets are brought to light, egos are bruised, and a love triangle with the most fictitiously delicious man is forged.
And through it all, you get to watch Maddie come into her own. At the Water's Edge isn't just about the journey of going on a quest to find the Loch Ness Monster; it's about the journey of Maddie finding herself when she didn't initially even know she was lost. It's about her realizing what she wants, realizing that she's worthy of genuine love, and realizing that she doesn't have to remain in an existence of complacency.
I think Maddie's character is one that all women, at some point in their lives, can relate to. Every woman has been that girl who dates the total belligerent tool even and over time becomes painfully aware that he doesn't make her happy, he's not invested in their relationship past having her bend to his every whim, he's not even really mature enough for a lasting relationship, and, frankly, he's just not worth having. I think she's type of relationships are actually necessary for relationship maturity (how are you going to recognize a good man if you haven't been exposed to a trifling one?), and it's rewarding getting to see someone reach that light at the end of the tunnel vision. Watching Maddie's character develop and seeing her come into her own in such an understandable and approachable way was one of my favorite things about the novel. Maddie's the kind of girl you could definitely be friends with.
Even when I was able to put down At the Water's Edge, I couldn't stop thinking about it. It's one of those books that stays with you, and the characters feel like people you know even though they lead vastly different lives than you. Even though it's only March, I already know this is going to be one of my favorite books of the year.
The novel is out tomorrow, so look for it at your favorite book buying establishment!