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book review

In At the Water’s Edge Madeline and Ellis head to Scotland in search of the Loch Ness monster.The Associated Press

In most families, fleeing to Scotland to prove the existence of the Loch Ness monster would seem an odd thing to do in order to expiate a social faux pas and redeem the family honour, but the Hydes aren't most families. To refer to them as dysfunctional would be something of an understatement.

At the Water's Edge, the new novel from bestselling author Sara Gruen (Water for Elephants), begins with a Philadelphia New Year's Eve party gone drunkenly awry as 1944 shudders into 1945. On the bleary morning after, Madeline (Maddie) Hyde and her husband, Ellis, heir to the Hyde fortune, are called to answer not only for making fools of themselves the previous night, but for their entire relationship. In the wake of their drunken revelry, the young couple finds themselves exiled from the family home, their allowance drastically curtailed.

Ellis had brought shame to the family by marrying Maddie, the daughter of a mentally unstable and morally questionable mother, a shame exacerbated when Ellis found himself unable to serve in the military owing to previously undiagnosed colour blindness. In co-operation with his friend Hank, Ellis hatches a scheme: Rather than languishing in the shadow of the family manse, they will venture an Atlantic crossing – despite the German blockade – and prove once and for all the existence of the Loch Ness monster. Ellis's father had earned his own degree of shame years prior when his own expedition to the loch drew charges of fraud and deceit. Ellis – not entirely rationally – believes he can redeem the family name through a heroic act of cryptozoology, and return to the United States with head held high and fortune restored.

At the Water's Edge initially takes the form of a fish-out-of-water story, the worldly, entitled rich deposited uneasily in a tiny Scottish village, being forced to reckon with a inn without electricity, heat or phone, meals governed by scant supplies and ration books, the sudden reality of the war manifesting itself in training camps and regular air raids, and an earthy – some might say quaint – cast of supporting characters rooted in the sod and beliefs in the old ways. It's colourful and amusing, almost comical as Ellis and Hank struggle with their displacement. Fans of Bill Forsyth's Local Hero will find themselves nodding appreciatively.

Almost imperceptibly, however, the novel shifts. As their search for the monster fails and they grow frustrated with their surroundings, Ellis and Hank turn to drink while Maddie begins to get to know the locals, from Willie the postie to Meg the voluptuous barmaid, from Anna the sheltered maid to, most significantly, Angus, the bearded, brooding innkeeper with tragedies of his own. As Maddie begins to dirty her hands at the inn, working for the first time in her life, fissures in her marriage begin to reveal themselves, and the novel turns into a domestic psychodrama, leavened with the chronicle of Maddie finding herself, much to the surprise of everyone around her.

Were one so inclined, there is much to criticize in At the Water's Edge. Many of the characterizations are overblown, from the mawkish – Ellis is just a touch too transparently malevolent – to the clichéd flatness of some of the villagers. The tone of the novel is similarly overwrought, slipping too often into melodrama and easy sentimentality. And once the nature of the story reveals itself, the mechanics underpinning the narrative begin to show. When Ellis, for example, takes special note of Angus's poaching, most readers will find themselves waiting for the inevitable arrival of the authorities, the fulfilment of the trope.

The curious thing is, though, that none of that seems to matter. Despite these faults, At the Water's Edge is a compelling, enthralling read, a novel which captivates and rewards, paying off in a series of emotional and narrative twists which – perhaps – gain additional force from their predictability. We have all seen this sort of story before; there is something especially powerful about seeing it so deftly embraced and heedlessly executed. At the Water's Edge is comfort reading of the highest order.

Robert J. Wiersema's new novel, Black Feathers, will be published later this year.