In her stunning new novel, Gruen returns to the kind of storytelling she excelled at in Water for Elephants: a historical timeframe in an unusual setting with a moving love story. Think Scottish Downton Abbey.
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.
Written by the author of Water for Elephants and described as a "Scottish Downton Abbey", this book seemed to have the makings of a great read. Unfortunately, for me, it did not live up to that potential and left me extremely disappointed.
The story is very slow to get going, with a generally unlikeable trio of main characters who are so stereotypical they read like caricatures of pretentious, entitled snobs. I wasn't able to connect with any of them or feel invested in their stories - even Maddie, with whom we are obviously supposed to feel sympathetic. Once the action moves to Scotland, the cast at the Inn is considerably more interesting and appealing, with the developing friendship between Maddie and Meg resonating more than the eventual 'insta' romance.
However, there are many inconsistencies in the storytelling and an absolute mish-mash of story threads, several of which are just thrown in and left hanging. We have the monster, ghosts, an ambiguous relationship between Ellis and Hank, an almost Jekyll/Hyde character transformation in Ellis, allusions to the shady past of Ellis's father, as well as a continually contradictory character in Hank, to name a few. And yet, none of these are fleshed out or resolved in a compelling way. Instead, things play out in a mostly superficial fashion, with a predictable romance interspersed with blatant info dumps about the war.
The protagonist, Maddie, is clearly intended to demonstrate great personal growth, transforming from her former shallow, privileged self into a more caring, compassionate and humble individual. And she does...somewhat. She does start to see the 'other' side of life, except everything resolves far too neatly (and at times ridiculously) into such an unbelievably perfect 'happily ever after' that it completely takes away from her supposed evolution and redemption. It just doesn't feel as though she has really learned all that much in the end, and she certainly doesn't sacrifice anything to do so.
I was hoping for intriguing and original historical fiction here. As it stands, this is a rather lackluster, predictable romance novel without any real depth or resonance.
“I stared at him for a long time. If he wanted to end his search for the beast, he need look no further than a mirror.”
This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher provided through Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.