Animals have always been central to author Sara Gruen, an expatriate Canadian who now lives in western North Carolina.

There were the circus animals, of course, in Gruen’s runaway best seller, “Water for Elephants,” including an elephant who deals out rough justice. Beyond that, there were the horses in her early novels and the bonobos who figured in her novel “Ape House.”

In her latest, “At the Water’s Edge,” though, Gruen goes after bigger game — nothing less than the Loch Ness monster.

Maddie, her husband Ellis and his best friend Hank are a trio of Bright Young Things straight out of the 1920s.

Trouble is, they’re living in 1940s Philadelphia, and their drunken escapades aren’t playing very well in society, especially since Ellis and Hank are both 4-F. (Color-blindness, you know.)

After one particularly scandalous New Year’s Eve party, Ellis and Maddie wind up all but disinherited by Ellis’ father, the Colonel (who’s never forgiven his son for failing to enlist).

To recoup their fortunes and good graces, Hank and Ellis concoct a scheme to cross to Scotland, in the middle of World War II, and find the Loch Ness monster. The Colonel, a big-game hunter and would-be explorer, had searched for the beast unsuccessfully in the 1930s; if they can prove the old man right, he might forgive them.

Poor Maddie — who suffers low self-esteem after being raised by a half-crazed society belle mother — finds herself dragged along for the Liberty ship ride.

For a while, Maddie sulks back at the Fraser Arms, while Ellis and Hank stomp through the heather and row across the lake, mostly drinking themselves to oblivion.

Gradually, however, she begins to interact with the local village people and their simple but fulfilling lives. She walks around, has a few encounters of the supernatural kind and learns to cook, thanks to the increasingly friendly help at the inn.

Meanwhile, as Ellis grows increasingly moody and abusive, Maddie finds herself drawn to the Fraser Arms’ innkeeper, a dark, gruff but incredibly hulky Scot named Angus, who doubles as the local game poacher.

Angus, we learn, is an incredible shot; he brings down a low-flying German Heinkel bomber with one blast from his hunting rifle.

The Monster makes an appearance (maybe) in a dramatic waterborne climax.

Alas, “At the Water’s Edge” is no “Water for Elements.” It doesn’t help that Maddie, for much of the tale, is a pretty whiny, passive-aggressive character.

The story just seems too calculated to push predictable chick-lit buttons. We have pretty obvious parallels to “Downton Abbey”: The lively, colorful “downstairs” characters, the great estate converted to a rehab facility for war wounded.

Plus, Gruen makes a pretty obvious pitch to fans of the “Outlander” series. Angus, while gruff and brawny, turns out to have a sensitive side By Ben Steelman
StarNews Media
Animals have always been central to author Sara Gruen, an expatriate Canadian who now lives in western North Carolina.

There were the circus animals, of course, in Gruen’s runaway best seller, “Water for Elephants,” including an elephant who deals out rough justice. Beyond that, there were the horses in her early novels and the bonobos who figured in her novel “Ape House.”

In her latest, “At the Water’s Edge,” though, Gruen goes after bigger game — nothing less than the Loch Ness monster.

Maddie, her husband Ellis and his best friend Hank are a trio of Bright Young Things straight out of the 1920s.

Trouble is, they’re living in 1940s Philadelphia, and their drunken escapades aren’t playing very well in society, especially since Ellis and Hank are both 4-F. (Color-blindness, you know.)

After one particularly scandalous New Year’s Eve party, Ellis and Maddie wind up all but disinherited by Ellis’ father, the Colonel (who’s never forgiven his son for failing to enlist).

To recoup their fortunes and good graces, Hank and Ellis concoct a scheme to cross to Scotland, in the middle of World War II, and find the Loch Ness monster. The Colonel, a big-game hunter and would-be explorer, had searched for the beast unsuccessfully in the 1930s; if they can prove the old man right, he might forgive them.

Poor Maddie — who suffers low self-esteem after being raised by a half-crazed society belle mother — finds herself dragged along for the Liberty ship ride.

For a while, Maddie sulks back at the Fraser Arms, while Ellis and Hank stomp through the heather and row across the lake, mostly drinking themselves to oblivion.

Gradually, however, she begins to interact with the local village people and their simple but fulfilling lives. She walks around, has a few encounters of the supernatural kind and learns to cook, thanks to the increasingly friendly help at the inn.

Meanwhile, as Ellis grows increasingly moody and abusive, Maddie finds herself drawn to the Fraser Arms’ innkeeper, a dark, gruff but incredibly hulky Scot named Angus, who doubles as the local game poacher.

Angus, we learn, is an incredible shot; he brings down a low-flying German Heinkel bomber with one blast from his hunting rifle.

The Monster makes an appearance (maybe) in a dramatic waterborne climax.

Alas, “At the Water’s Edge” is no “Water for Elements.” It doesn’t help that Maddie, for much of the tale, is a pretty whiny, passive-aggressive character.

The story just seems too calculated to push predictable chick-lit buttons. We have pretty obvious parallels to “Downton Abbey”: The lively, colorful “downstairs” characters, the great estate converted to a rehab facility for war wounded.

Plus, Gruen makes a pretty obvious pitch to fans of the “Outlander” series. Angus, while gruff and brawny, turns out to have a sensitive side -- and he turns out to be as skilled in the arts of love as that other secretive Scotsman, James Bond. (This is important since poor Maddie, despite years of marriage, has never experienced an orgasm before.)

Gruen remains a considerable stylist, and her evocations of the Scottish countryside are entertaining enough. This poor-little-rich-girl saga, though, should have little appeal outside the romance market.

Contact StarNews Media writer Ben Steelman at Ben.Steelman@StarNewsOnline.com.

and he turns out to be as skilled in the arts of love as that other secretive Scotsman, James Bond. (This is important since poor Maddie, despite years of marriage, has never experienced an orgasm before.)

Gruen remains a considerable stylist, and her evocations of the Scottish countryside are entertaining enough. This poor-little-rich-girl saga, though, should have little appeal outside the romance market.

Contact StarNews Media writer Ben Steelman at Ben.Steelman@StarNewsOnline.com.