Sometimes you enjoy a book because it comes at the right time. I recently spent a week in Scotland and so Sara Gruen’s novel, set in a Highland village on the shores of Loch Ness, evoked many vivid memories of incredible scenery and lovely accents. The main character of this story is not Scottish but American. Maddie Hyde is a society wife, who has been dragged to Scotland by her husband, Ellis, in an attempt to regain the family fortune. Accompanying them is Ellis’s best friend, Hank. Though it is 1944, neither man is serving in the military; Ellis’s colorblindness prevents him from enlisting (even though he has tried multiple times) while Hank suffers from a bad case of flat feet. By going to Scotland, Ellis hopes to impress his father and earn his way back to the family trust fund by proving the existence of the Loch Ness monster, something his father, a former army colonel, failed to do several decades before. Maddie hopes this crazy adventure will help her husband regain the confidence he lost when he was denied the opportunity to serve as well as get them both back into the elder Hyde’s good graces.
Ellis and Hank have to use some serious connections to actually gain passage on a ship crossing the Atlantic but they seem a bit oblivious to the fact that there is a war on. Maddie is more aware—both scared by the dangers they face in their voyage and shaken by the wounded she sees when they land at a naval base on the shores of Scotland. From the moment they land, Ellis and Hank are the classic annoying American tourists of the wealthy variety—expecting their driver to carry their luggage and throwing a fit four hours later when the driver drops them off at The Fraser Arms, an old inn without electricity or charm,where they’ve made arrangements to stay. Maddie is too sick from the voyage to care how they act or how their actions are taken by the employees of the inn—Angus, Anna, and Meg. However, that changes as time goes by and Hank and Ellis venture out on their quest, leaving Maddie to fend for herself. Soon Maddie is getting to know Anna and Meg and feeling more and more distant from her husband and his obsession.
There’s a lot to like in this book. I enjoyed watching Maddie shake off her sense of privilege and get to know the people around her. From the very beginning, the reader sees her relationship with Ellis as one built on shaky ground, but Gruen does a realistic job of showing Maddie’s growing realizations about her husband and her own past. There are also some bits of magical realism that work well to move the plot along. Finally, Gruen does a good job of giving us a sense of place—Scotland during wartime. On the other hand, bits of the plot toward the end fall too neatly into step for my taste, and Gruen repeats the idea that Ellis is the “real monster” one too many times. It’s a metaphor that I don’t think ever needs to be articulated because the story itself shows it clearly. Finally, there’s an element that Gruen hints at early on in the story but never fully develops—one that throws the ending just a bit for me. These are things that keep this novel from being great for me. Still, it’s an engaging read, especially if you’re already missing Scotland or are suffering from Outlander withdrawal.