Tag Archives: high society

At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

We all know there are self centered, egotistical, SOB’s out there in the world, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we want to spend time with them, even if it is only amongst the pages of a book.

Seems that’s one of the problems of At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen. Ellis Hyde and his pal Hank are privileged, silver-spoons-in-their-mouths, sons of wealthy gentlemen who spend their time in frivolous pursuits, going to parties, drinking too much, and cavalcading throughout high society, annoying the patrons and getting into trouble. The two best friends have a cohort, Madeline, a woman who enjoys their company and madcap adventures. Despite her wealthy father, Maddie has a black mark against her due to the antics of her now deceased mother, so that when she marries Ellis her welcome is anything but friendly. Then on New Years Eve in 1944, the trio are especially obnoxious, and Ellis’ parents are, shall we say, not amused with the resulting gossip, so when Ellis insults his father they are ejected from the family estate and left to fend for themselves.

Ellis, whose father (the Colonel) can’t forgive him for being rejected from the military due to a case of color blindness, decides to go to Scotland and find the Loch Ness Monster, an adventure that tainted his father’s reputation several years earlier. If Ellis could just prove the monster exists, then his now proud papa would welcome him back with open arms and reinstate his allowance.

Unfortunately there is a war going on, so they must travel overseas bunked down like commoners in a military convoy and to make matters worse, once they arrive in Scotland their welcome is less than cordial. The search for the monster is a lot more difficult than expected, and the two friend’s behavior gets more and more outrageous fueled by alcohol and the little pills prescribed to Maddie for her “nervous condition”. Maddie soon distances herself from her husband and Hank, finding more in common with the humble folks who live and work at the inn. The true personalities of each of the characters are revealed as they deal with their struggles and Maddie comes to terms with her choices in life making a decision which totally alters the fate of everyone involved leading to a twisted resolution.

While the story takes place towards the end of WWII, the war is more of a backdrop than an integral part of the story although there are black out curtains, ration books, gas masks, and several air raids. Scotland, complete with castle, is the main focus of the narrative as the inhabitants try to eke out a living in difficult times.

This was a hard book to get into, not grabbing ones’ interest until almost half way through, probably because of the despicable characters. I did borrow the audiobook, dramatically read by Justine Eyre, to get me over the hump, then finished with the written word.

I’m not sure if I buy this tale, it’s a little far fetched and I question the shift in Ellis from a spoiled brat into an evil man. Although I usually look for the good in people (in life as well as in literature), by the end of the book he had no redeeming qualities left to discuss. There was also a romance which seemed to come out of nowhere, even though there were some subtle hints of this possibility along the way.

Three stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

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The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows

It was on Memorial Day 1938 when Willa realized that everyone seemed to be keeping secrets from her, which lead to her honing in on just one goal in life – to surreptitiously ferret out the unspoken mystery. What the twelve year old fails to realize is that sometimes there are some very good reasons to keep the truth hidden from view. Looking back she is only able to lament her aptitude at acquiring such potent sleuthing skills, but by then it is too late to unremember her discoveries.

The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows captures the essence of small town life during the depression era where everybody has nothing better to do than keep their nose in everybody else’s business. There are no secrets between “friends” – or are there?

The story unfolds through the eyes of matriarch Josephine (Jottie) and other members of the Romeyn Family as they struggle through the summer heat in Macedonia, West Virginia. A parallel story intersects their lives when Layla Beck, an upper crust daughter of a US Senator who (after a major disagreement with her father) ends up boarding at the Romeyn house while writing the history of Macedonia’s Sesquicentennial for a WPA project.

As Layla sets out to learn the true story behind historical Macedonia (versus the boring “official” accounts of the founding members), she discovers a talent for something other than being the center of attention at social events. The back story about her former life as a debutante is revealed via a flurry of letters back and forth between family and friends.

Lottie reveals her innermost thoughts through flashbacks to her childhood. Barrows slowly reveals details about the devastating loss which has colored Lottie’s life resulting in her “old maid” status. Rumors abound about her past, but In order to avoid a potential scandal which might hurt the children, especially with Willa asking questions, she strives for respectability. Lottie spends her time helping her beloved brother Felix take care of his two daughters, Willa and Bird, whenever he is out of town on the frequent business trips necessary to acquire some cash to help them through the hard times.

There is so much to this story it is impossible to summarize the details. Expect quite a bit of rambling towards the beginning as the author introduces a myriad of characters. It takes a while to keep them all straight (an annotated list of townsfolk would have been helpful, although there is a Romeyn family tree for reference), but once the events start to snowball, the reading pace picks up.

One of the highlights of the story is the various eccentric personalities found in Macedonia. Barrows makes us a part of the community through their thoughts and actions, especially those of main characters Lottie and Willa. Willa, in a way, reminds me of Scout from Montgomery’s To Kill a Mockingbird, somehow getting caught up in all the action. Lottie’s childhood stories are both entertaining and informative in helping the reader get a handle on her personality. Whether you love or hate the smooth talking, womanizer Felix depends on whose eyes you view him with – as a brother, a father, a friend, or a curious neighbor.

While the ending isn’t totally unexpected, it was at times a bit confusing, yet despite these flaws, The Truth According to Us is still a beautifully written book.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Random House for providing this ARC in exchange for a honest review.

The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Love, and Loss by Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper

There are numerous books, photographs, articles and newsreels, along with “gossipy fairy telling” about Gloria Vanderbilt and the Vanderbilt family saga. This particular book approaches the topic from a different angle. Anderson Cooper, the son of Gloria Vanderbilt, begins to realize his mother is mortal after she develops respiratory problems at the age of ninety one. Looking back on his life, he realizes that his mother has never really talked about her childhood and young adult years and that much of his knowledge about his family legacy has been through media sources.

Keeping in mind that Anderson has a career with CNN which requires him to travel all over the world, it is lucky that Gloria is savvy enough to be able to correspond through emails. These interchanges become the basis of The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Love, and Loss as a mother shares a retrospection of her life with her son, providing a give and take with explanations of past occurrences, many which happened prior to Cooper’s birth.

This format also gives Anderson a chance to ask questions and discover similarities and differences between their views of life. While Gloria is what one would call a free spirit, Anderson tends to be a type one personality searching for stability in a world full of chaos. While his mom thrives on mayhem, Cooper cringes at the thought. Life was far from tranquil after Anderson’s father, Wyatt Cooper, passed away during heart bypass surgery when he was only ten, so it is not surprising that he craved stability. Perhaps in a normal household that would have been a reasonable expectation but we are talking about Gloria Vanderbilt, a woman surrounded by wealth and prestige. Cooper’s life was far from ordinary with a nanny to take care of his needs while his mother ran her design empire. Yet Anderson decided at an early age to retain the name of his father and earn his worth through his own endeavors, not his heritage.

It’s amazing the depth of Gloria’s thoughts at the age of ninety one, looking back and trying to make sense of who she was, what she did, and why she felt compelled to choose the various paths her life took (or rather how she drifted from one situation to the next, seemingly at random, taking advantage of the opportunity of the moment). This in contrast to her son who instituted a life plan which he tries to follow. Of course, it’s easy to look backwards, after the deeds are done, to try and justify one’s actions. Despite all the pandemonium in her childhood, it is difficult to feel sorry for what some people call “the poor little rich girl” who lived in the lap of luxury yet yearned for love and affection from her socialite mother. Still, we all make choices and her admitted wildness at the age of seventeen is that of a headstrong teenager determined to have a good time on the social scene of Hollywood, not the fault of an absentee parent.

While some felt the back and forth of these notes between mother and son distracted from Gloria’s narration, they miss the purpose of this book. It is not a biography of Gloria Vanderbilt, especially since there are dozens of those containing more salacious tidbits, but a year’s worth of sharing between parent and child which we, as the reader, are privileged to view. A third voice gives the reader some background explanations including references to events which might be foreign to us. Perhaps these three separate voices could have been labeled, although Cooper’s responses are in bold and the narratives are in italics while Gloria’s musings are in a regular font. Many recommend the audiobook, narrated by the authors, which provides a more intimate voice.

If these interchanges peak an individual reader’s interest, there are plenty of sources to read which fill in the blanks about both Gloria and the entire Vanderbilt family. My main complaint is that the photographs sprinkled throughout the book are not labeled, nor are there enough of them. Greedy me, I wanted more. Three and half stars.