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At the Water’s Edge Book Club Questions

Even though accounts of an aquatic beast living in Scotland’s Loch Ness date back 1,500 years, the modern legend was born on May 2, 1933. That’s when a local couple reported seeing, “an enormous animal rolling and plunging on the surface.” With that Inverness Courier story, the “monster” became a media phenomenon. London newspapers quickly sent correspondents to Scotland and a circus offered a hefty reward for capture of the beast.

Fast forward about 80 years, and Nessie has become big news again in Sara Gruen‘s novel, At the Water’s Edge. It’s a story of three spoiled, stinking-rich socialites (think Jay Gatsby,  Daisy Buchanan and Nick Carraway) sailing through enemy-patrolled waters in the waning months of WWII to search for the mythical beast.

But it’s also the story of  Mairi Grant’s tragic suicide; after burying her infant daughter and receiving the dreaded news that her new husband has been lost in battle. Believing she had nothing left to live for, the grieving woman walked into the Loch never to be heard from or seen again.  Local legend has it that the Loch never gives up its dead.

“A super steamy love story.”—Good Housekeeping

In an NPR interview, Ms. Gruen told Scott Simon that the Loch Ness Monster is, “metaphoric for sort of the obvious things like Hitler, but it’s largely indicative of the monsters within the story’s characters and within us. And once we face them, deciding how we’re gonna deal with them — or if we’re gonna deal with them — is what defines us as human beings.”

Once in Scotland, the three main characters find small cramped rooms at the Fraser Arms run by the  mysterious Angus whose gruff demeanor hides a deep sorrow.   Leaving his wife behind, Ellis and his friend Hank spend hours at the Loch hoping to sight the elusive beast. Out of boredom and loneliness, Maddie befriends the inn’s staff making some women friends for the first time in her life.

“A page-turner of a novel that rollicks along with crisp historical detail.”Fort Worth StarTelegram

Failure upon failure leaves Ellis and Hank in drunken desperation and at odds with each other. Ellis’ dependence on Maddie’s ‘nerve’ pills increases as the possibility of being welcomed back into his father’s good graces grows more distant with each passing day.

In the meantime, Maddie blends into the daily life of the inn while experiencing the hardships of war first hand with the locals. Slowly she begins to see her marriage to Ellis as nothing more than a sham with its fabulous homes, designer gowns and luxurious furs.  But when she and Angus work tirelessly to save Meg’s life, Maggie’s true self emerges and she experiences real love for the first time.

Reader’s Comments

At the Water’s Edge drew mixed reviews even from the 65% who rated it four or five stars on One reviewer characterized Ms Gruen’s story as a fairy-tale romance with a privileged American woman who magically transforms into a privileged Scottish woman. Another reader, who initially termed the plot improbable, was swept up immediately with its face-paced plot and historic setting. Another reviewer found that while  90% of the story,  “proceeded at a leisurely pace, with well-fleshed characters and a relatively believable plot; the ending was almost juvenile in its brevity and fairytale sweetness”.

Approximately 35% of reviewers voiced their general disappointment with this best seller.  Many stated that after reading Water for Elephants, Gruen’s previous novel, they expected much, much more. One reviewer found the narrative lacking in actual WWII history saying:   “At times the plot would come to a screeching halt while the author threw in a paragraph or two about the war”.

Still another grew tired of the author’s frequent use of  unimaginative clichés while a third reader found the novel little more than a draft:  “Seems like Gruen was going to go back to flesh it out; add dimension and insight to give the reader the fun of making discoveries rather than being told”.

Pushing all those comments aside, At the Water’s Edge is a most readable novel detailing a young woman’s rise from an unhappy childhood and disastrous marriage to establish her place in a wider world while finding love and happiness along the way.  Even though some reviewers criticized the ending, this reader was glad to see that Ellis got what he deserved.  Any book club member will certainly have formed an opinion about women’s plight as depicted in this war time novel. As for me, I do love a happy ending.

A Reader’s Guide can be found by clicking here.

A summary and analysis companion guide can be found here.

My discussion questions are listed below.

Discussion Questions:

  1. The novel’s plot yields up three distinct conflicts: bravery vs. cowardice, the privileged class vs. the working class and the truth vs. the lie. Ask the group to give examples of each and explain how these three conflicts shape At The Water’s Edge.
  2. While writing novels, Ms. Gruen commented that she took the pressure off herself by, “allowing the characters to take over and go in unexpected directions while I really just kind of record their story”.  Did you find any instances when Ms. Gruen would have been better served by keeping a firmer grip on her characters?  If so, when?  Where?
  3. At the Water’s Edge begins with the following epigraph:  One crow for sorrow, two crows for mirth, three crows for a wedding, four crows for a birth, five crows for silver, six crows for gold, seven for a secret, never to be told. What do you think of the author’s choice of quotation?  How does this inscription reveal the theme of the book?
  4. Was Ellis really color blind?  Was Hank flat-footed?
  5. Describe the relationship between Maddie, Ellis and Hank? At any time, did you ever consider the possibility that Ellis and Hank might be gay?  Lovers?
  6. Ellis developed an addiction to Maddie’s ‘nerve’ pills.  What kind of medication could have been so addictive?
  7. Why was Valentine’s Day a significant date in the plot of the novel?
  8. What prevented Maddie from drowning herself like Mairi?
  9. Knowing how unhappy Maddie was, Meg proposed poisoning Ellis with fiddlehead stew to induce kidney failure.  Why did Maddie refuse Meg’s suggestion?
  10. At one point, Maddie said, “Monsters abound usually in plain sight”. What and/or who might she be referring to?
  11. Did you like the novel’s ending?  Why or why not?
  12. How would you rate At the Water’s Edge? Will you read another book by Sara Gruen?

What fun the subdivision book club had creating their impression of ‘Nessie’! Click Nessie to see their masterpieces!!



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