I received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher (Random House) via NetGalley
Release date: 31st March 2015
I loved Sara Gruen’s stunning smash hit Water For Elephants, so I was incredibly excited to get approved for an advance copy and I was expecting great things when I began this book. When reading it, it was difficult not to compare it to her former novel, and it did live up to its predecessor in parts. Gruen’s evocative language and her description of a historical time period is spot on and she’s delivered another multi-layered tale with a large dose of sweep-you-off-your-feet romance. But this one just didn’t blow me away like her debut.
Madeleine lives a privileged life in 1940s Philadelphia, sweeping from one party to another with her husband Ellis and his best friend Hank, attending each in a different dress, provided by her husband’s wealthy family. The three are thick as thieves, enjoying their indulgent lifestyle; “My life consisted of waking at noon, meeting up with Hank and Ellis, and then bouncing from eye-opener to pick-me-up to cocktail to nightcap, and staying out all night at dances or parties before starting all over again the next day.”
But things begin to unravel during the Second World War when the two men feel emasculated after being unable to enlist, and turn to a new project – an adventure – to occupy their time. The three embark on a journey across the seas to Scotland, on a mission to find the infamous Loch Ness Monster, and capture it on film.
As they disembark from their treacherous journey across the seas and arrive at their unexpected lodgings Sara Gruen is in her element, perfectly capturing the culture shock as the three experience their first glimpse at the Scottish Highlands. They are less than impressed with their accommodation, and as they begin the settle in they find there’s even more to adjust to as the war makes it’s presence known with blackout curtains, ration books and air raids – things the threesome barely gave a second thought to while living their decadent lives in America. But the war and the dark loch simply provide a backdrop as the relationships between the threesome begin to crumble.
There is no doubt that Sara Gruen can write. She sets the scene using lyrical prose which draws the reader in, and she seamlessly weaves in historical facts, giving the war, the Loch Ness monster and the Scottish Highlands their chance to shine. She captures the despair of the war – “I did not see how this could go on. The world would run out of men.” and the beauty and mystery of the loch “Were its depths as low as the hills were high? The loch became so deep, so dark, so quickly, it seemed as impenetrable as the fortress beside us once was.”
But at the heart of this story, it’s about relationships. It’s a romance, and it’s not one I fell in love with. I began to notice some similarities between this novel and the romance in Water For Elephants – both involve a cruel, manipulative and at times abusive male from whom the woman wishes to escape. Why the bad man is the way he is is never really explored, which is a little frustrating. They also both involve a sudden, passionate romance which blossoms within forbidden circumstances. But the romance in this novel seemed to develop with little actual conversation, and is instead solely based upon a few stolen looks and snatched moments. Is that enough to convincingly call it love? I’m not sure.
There are a few elements of the plot that didn’t sit right with me, but I in no way regret reading this novel, and I’m still keen to read more of Gruen’s work. She captures a time period and place so perfectly and the feel-good romantic ending after the tribulations of the war left me feeling a little bit better about the world.