Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Publishing Date: March 31
Genre: historical fiction
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.
Maddie, Ellis, and Hank just celebrated the stroke of midnight and welcomed in 1945 when the men decided that this year, in two weeks’ time, they’ll finally set off to Scotland and find the Loch Ness monster. Maddie laughs, and doesn’t take them seriously. There’s a war going on, for crying out loud! But when they’re sober once more — and Ellis’s parents toss him and Maddie out the door — Maddie comes to find these two foolish men are serious about this adventure. When they arrive in Scotland, Maddie tries to make the best of their situation by befriending Anna and Meg, the two girls who help run the inn, with their daily tasks and getting to know the town when it’s not ravaged by air raids. But as time passes, and Hank and Ellis are no sooner to gathering evidence of Nessie’s existence, Maddie must make a life-changing decision to save herself or fall victim once more to the men’s plots.
This blows Water for Elephants out of, well, the water. I think this may be Gruen’s best book yet.
When I first picked this up, I was expecting a jolly quest for the Loch Ness monster darkened by the war only slightly with punctuated air raids and all that. Oh, no. No no no, this is a very deep, introspective novel, about one woman and her personal awakening while her deceiving husband and his charismatic friend dash off God-knows-where, mindless and heartless about the hardships right in front of their eyes.
Maddie, though without asking for pity, has had the kind of rough life only a pampered rich girl can receive: a cold father, a narcissistic and hysterical mother, no girl friends, and essentially no money if she doesn’t stay in her father’s good graces. She can’t go to college, her mother insists she gets plastic surgery, or at the least starve herself to be “thin and beautiful,” and so her life is an endless cycle of sleeping till noon, stumble down lavish staircases for dinner, and party all night. A doctor has even diagnosed her with a nervous disorder, and prescribes pills she doesn’t take and encourages her to abstain from physical activity of any kind.
You can’t help but fall in love with her, because once she sets sail to Scotland with husband Ellis and friend Hank on their ridiculous adventure to prove Nessie is real, she’s awakened to the war, her sham of a marriage, her lack of female friendships, how utterly useless she’s become. Once in Scotland, she notices Ellis’s drug addiction and alcoholism, the way he treats her like she’s someone to be locked up. Hank distracts Ellis by taking him away for longer visits to the Loch, and Maddie finds solace in working with the other women at the inn, Anna and Meg — who, by the way, are absolutely awesome. Maddie, with Meg and Anna’s assistance and the sheer reality of the war above their heads, grows and stretches her legs and becomes who she was meant to be, who she wants to be. It’s beautiful. And it’s written entirely without selfishness. It’s like watching a naive, sheltered child grow into a determined and strong young woman. Amazing what war can do.
There’s so much in this novel, beyond Maddie and her growth. You get a good peek into early/mid twentieth-century psychology, the effect WWII had on Americans versus Europeans, just how much class systems still mattered then, the effect news on the radio had on the populace, just how important it was to have a gas mask at all times. It’s not another Scotland story, another Loch Ness romp. It’s a very thorough examination of the war just before the end.
And also, Angus.
This book is astounding. You really get into the mind of the character in her everyday life, and I absolutely adore that. I’m sad it had to end — I enjoyed befriending Maddie.
Thank you, Edelweiss, for providing this book from Spiegel & Grau for review!