At the Water’s Edge

9780385523233_p0_v1_s260x420Although the timeframe of Sara Gruen’s At The Water’s Edge spans World War II, her story combines the societal flavor of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby with the Scottish mysticism of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander in an adventure that includes the pursuit of the Loch Ness monster.  The cruel realities of war combine with romance and some shocking reminders of the vulnerability of women and the power of suggestion.  With the same ease as her popular Water for Elephants, Gruen has created a story with convenient events resulting in a satisfying, if predictable, read, and, of course, a happy ending.

After disgracing themselves with raucous and drunken behavior at a Philadelphia society party, Maddie and her husband Ellis are disinherited by Ellis’s father, and book an ocean voyage to Scotland – in the middle of submarine warfare.  Ellis, with the help of his wealthy friend Hank, decide to prove the existence of the Loch Ness monster in an attempt to exonerate their reputations.  As the tale unfolds, each character’s vulnerabilities are revealed: Ellis’ s father’s fabrication of pictures taken years earlier, claiming his discovery of the monster; Ellis faking color-blindness to avoid going to war; Maddie not saving her mother from drowning.  Through gunfire and a sunken ship, they venture to the Scottish Highlands, where the tale takes on new characters and a little mystery – as well as a tall muscular red-headed Scotsman, who survived battle to become the laird of the castle.

Deserted by Ellis and Hank as they search for the Loch Ness monster, Maddie discovers her inner strength and some hidden talents, with the help of the cook and the housekeeper who befriend her.  Eventually, Maddie trades her vulnerability and dependence for courage and stamina and falls in love with Angus, the virile Scotsman.  The descriptions of the beauty of the Highlands and the mystery of the Loch only add to the drama.

The ending is a little too neatly resolved, but it does make for the happily-ever-after scenario – and Maddie does not have to travel back in time to get it.

Water for Elephants – the Movie

I read this wonder of a book when it first came out and recommended it to everyone – but I only remembered the elephant who understood a foreign language and the ending – one to aspire to.  Since then, I’ve read Sara Gruen’s latest book, Ape House, and have been recommending that one too.

The movie brought it all back, with Hal Holbrook playing the old vet who tells his story. The flashback takes up most of the movie, as it did in the book, with grand circus scenes, smoldering love connections, and terrifyingly brutal cruelty.  After his parents die in a car crash, Jacob Jankowski forgoes finishing his veterinary degree and joins the circus. His skills with animals become apparent, and he becomes the unofficial vet to the circus menagerie.

Set during the Depression, the circus is struggling and buys Rosie,  the elephant, who cannot seem to follow the simplest directions.  Once the language barrier has been crossed, Jacob teaches the elephant so well that she takes center ring and saves the circus.  The menagerie director (the circus owner in the movie) abuses the elephant as well as his wife, eventually losing both to the handsome vet.

The elephant is the star of the movie, but, it’s the ending – the same in both the book and the movie – when the story returns to the old man – that will always be my favorite part.  Who wouldn’t want to join the circus?

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Read a review of another Sara Gruen book: Ape House

Ape House

What’s the difference between visiting a zoo and watching a TV reality show?  You can provide the punch line – not too hard to imagine.  In Ape House, Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants, once again uses man’s relationship with the animal world to suggest that some animals may be more human than humans.

The story jolts open with the bombing of the Great Ape Language Lab, and then toggles back and forth from Isabel Duncan, a modern Jane Goodall, who is severely injured in the attack, and John Thigpen, the journalist trying to cover the story. Duncan has been studying the behavior of the apes – bonobos–  who can communicate in sign language, make decisions, and generally act like humans who like sex – a lot of it.  It’s this characteristic that gets them their own reality show – Ape House.

Although it’s not clear who was really responsible for the bombing, and subsequent transfer of the bonobos from their safe haven to reality TV,  likely villains stalk the action.  Suspects include: the demonstrators waving placards outside the lab;  the TV show producer and rich guru of porn – think, Larry Flynt of Penthouse fame; Peter, head scientist with a shady past, and Isabel’s lover.

Gruen uses John Thigpen as the intelligent well-meaning character who gets sucked in.  Weighing his bravery (he actually puts out a fire on a burning man) and common sense against his need to succeed, Gruen  has him confronting prostitutes and writing for a trashy tabloid, while still trying to salvage his integrity to write that Pulitzer story.   His personal life only adds to the drama and offers some comedy, with his wife succumbing to Hollywood’s superficiality and his mother-in-law’s obsessive-compulsive behavior.

The apes are the heroes in the story, with well-meaning humans trying to undo the wrong that humans initiated just by interfering in the apes’ lives.  Gruen did her homework at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa, and incorporates her research on the bonobos into her story.  Bonobos really can communicate in language.

http://saragruen.com/2010/07/a-letter-from-sara-2/

Ape House has something for every reader – action (things get blown up and set on fire; mystery (whodunit to the apes, the lab, the scientist); love stories (John and his wife; comedy (apes ordering greasy take-out); and Gruen’s smattering of  philosophical thoughtfulness about beauty, common sense, and humanity.

If you liked her Water for Elephants, you are going to love the apes.

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