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.

The Children’s Crusade

9781476710457_p0_v3_s260x420Ann Packer has some thoughts on that old adage – “It’s all my mother’s fault” in her new book, The Children’s Crusade.  Whatever we have become may be attributable to our mothers – or not…

At first glance, the Blairs are the model family – something out of the old Donna Reed show, with the pediatrician father, the repressed mother, and four children – three boys and a girl.  Of course, they are not ideal – no family is – and Packer allows the reader to live among their yearnings and disappointments, learning how families survive, and offering a little wisdom about relationships.

After Penny Greenway marries Bill Blair, who has dreams of a family-filled house on the wooded California acres he bought on a whim after returning from the war,  she chafes at her role as wife, housekeeper, and mother.  Looking forward to the day when her three children will finally all be in school, she is sidelined by a fourth unwanted pregnancy – another obstacle to her free time and her development as a budding artist.  The story flips between her life with her young children and the grown adult children they’ve become, with each telling the story through alternating chapters.  When the black sheep, the youngest, returns to force the sale of the big house, the plot turns inward to adult feelings of inadequacy and betrayal.

Throughout the story, James, the youngest among his three R siblings – Robert, Rebecca, and Ryan – forces the action.  As a young child, James is unmanageable, lively, and unpredictable, demonstrating bizarre behavior, possibly in an attempt to get attention from a mother who would rather not give it to him.  As the others grow into doctors and a teacher, James drops out, wanders the world, and finally finds himself in a commune in Oregon.  Needing money to start a life with his new love, a married mother of two, James returns home to test the conditions of the trust his father had established before he died.  The sale of the big house is contingent on the approval of Penny, now an artist living in New Mexico, and at least one of the children.  Up until now, the children have been united against their mother and  rallied against the sale.

The “crusade” refers to the young children’s plan to make their mother happy.  What could they do as a family that would interest their mother?  How could they rein her into their circle?  Make her want to be with them?  An impossibility – Penny is overwhelmed with the drudge of her life, and only wants to escape to her shed to create art.

Packer is careful to create shadings as she describes Penny’s life in the fifties.  Penny hungers for recognition as more than the stay-at-home mother, hostess, wife of a Doctor.  Some sacrifices were just too hard for her to make, yet, in a moment of clarity toward the end of the book, Packer has James state the obvious – “Wasn’t the whole thing mutual?”  Could Bill and Penny have figured out a way to give each other what they needed as individuals?  Their children do figure it out, as they move on away from the past and into their own futures.


A Map of Betrayal

9780307911605_p0_v1_s260x420Ha Jin examines the struggle of a Chinese spy torn between his homeland and his new American life in A Map of Betrayal. I found Ha Jin when I read his stunning portrayal of Chinese life in Waiting; he has the ability to transport the reader to China with his detailed descriptions and his emotional observations. In A Map of Betrayal Ha Jin creates a stirring inner conflict with the story of Gary Shang, the most important Chinese spy who infiltrated the CIA.

Lillian Shang, an American professor, discovers her father’s diaries detailing his secret past, separated from a wife and children in China, before he established his cover in the United States and married her American mother. Working for China, Shang constantly looked for a way to satisfy his yearning to return home, yet his ties through his new family and connections created a conflict of emotions and loyalties. Lillian returns to China to find his family, as Ha Jin slowly unravels a past full of history and intrigue.

Prominent names – Kennedy, Nixon, Kissinger, Chiang Kai-Shek, Mao – float through the narrative as the author connects the politics of the times to Gary Shang’s journey from lowly translator to astute analyst and secret arbiter for both countries. Ha Jin attributes a number of détente agreements, including renewed relations between China and the United States, to Shang’s secret efforts.

Although the detailed descriptions can be overwhelming at times, reading through them gives the reader the history to create an effective backdrop for Shang’s life. When the plot turns to reveal another generation of spies, Ha Jin follows the current attitudes between countries. The ending offers a clear perspective and poses the question: Is the man betraying the country or the country betraying the man?

A Map of Betrayal takes careful reading to catch all the nuances, but a worthwhile book to contemplate and possibly discuss.

Related Review:  Waiting