Sara Gruen, best known as the author of "Water for Elephants," has, in her novels, given major roles to animals, namely horses, apes and, of course, an elephant. Now, in "At the Water's Edge," she brings on the big one: star of legend and hoax, the Loch Ness Monster.
It's 1944 and photographing this elusive creature becomes the obsession of Ellis and Hank, a couple of idle, rich ne'er-do-wells from Philadelphia. Ellis is a pill-popping pantywaist who is married to Maddie, the character who serves as the novel's heroine despite vomiting, staggering and fainting throughout the book. Hank, an unmarried playboy, is the couple's best friend.
Ellis, whose colorblindness has kept him out of the military, has a big blowup with his father, and the three young people head off to Scotland by troop ship to get pictures of Nessie. It's the only sure way Ellis can think of to prove himself a man and mollify his father who, years ago, faked photos of the creature and was exposed as a fraud. ("If finding the monster was what it was going to take to make Ellis feel whole again," muses Maddie, "then so be it.")
Once in Scotland and settled at an inn run by Angus, a glowering Heathcliffian character, the two young men make themselves unlovable with finger-snapping displays of lordliness and contempt for the locals, their unpopularity further compounded by Ellis being recognized as scion of his fraudster father.
The search for the monster goes forward under dripping skies and with a good deal of mishap and acrimony. Maddie is party to some of it, but soon enough has had a snootful and stays back at the inn making friends with the common people and learning about their old-fashioned lives. She finds new ways to do her hair and gets the promise of a manicure from a barmaid. The next thing you know she has rolled up her sleeves and is wielding a dustcloth, making beds, peeling potatoes and burning under the gaze of Angus.
I came to this book with expectations of enjoyment; after all, "Water for Elephants" was an entertaining melodrama in the grand old style; but instead I found an aimless, tedious tale larded with emblems of wartime: weak tea, ration books, air raids, Anderson shelters, news of the liberation of the Nazi death camps and the Soviet advance into Germany, lipstick shortage — something for everyone.
The characters, who speak in the flaccid clichés of our own time ("I tried to process this"), are so distractedly drawn that they are hardly even stock figures. As for the Loch Ness Monster — my lips are sealed.
Katherine A. Powers received the 2013 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle and is the editor of "Suitable Accommodations: The Letters of J.F. Powers, 1942-1963."