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by Sara Gruen
The prologue starts out with a sad situation. A young woman, Mairi, has lost her baby to stillbirth, and soon after learns that her husband, a soldier in WWII, is missing, presumed dead. How this ties in with the story to come will take some time to become clear, but the reveal was worth the wait.
The story mostly concerns a group of Americans: Maddie, our pov character, and her husband Ellis, plus their friend Hank. Mention is also made of Violet, Hank's girlfriend, but she is left behind as the other three cross the ocean in 1945 when WWII makes that a foolish idea, to go to Scotland to hunt for the Loch Ness Monster. Hank and Ellis are both unable to sign up with the military, one for color blindness and the other with flat feet.
Culture clash is immediate. Hank and Ellis come from well-off families and expect 'service' and luxury where the down-to-earth people one finds in a Scottish Inn expect people to look after themselves at the very least and apparently healthy young men are looked at askance if they are still civilians. The men expect 'service staff' to put their clothes away for them in their rooms. Maddie catches on and puts her own things away.
I grew to like Maddie. Her backstory comes out over the course of the story and her willingness and ability to adapt to the very different culture appealed to my sympathies. Her husband, on the other hand, is the epitome of the 'ugly American'. A spoiled brat who routinely lies to his wife and treats the locals as if he is somehow better than they are. As much as there was social stigma over divorce in those days, I was thinking halfway through that Maddie really needed to get this ill-mannered beast out of her life.
One of the things I really like about this author is that she does her research. The fine details of life in that time and place lend a sense of reality. Little things like hearing about a fever going around in Inverness or looking at the newspaper and seeing stories of decimated towns next to adverts for cold cream, showing an attitude of 'life goes on' amidst the horrors of war on home soil.
The acknowledgements at the end show that she interviewed several people about their first hand experiences, so details like the reaction when a postman brings a telegram, a sure sign that someone has died, ring true. Also the subtle implication that women tended to fall for whatever men were available at a time when most of the young, healthy men were away in battle add to the reality of a 1945 setting.
A lot of fast action comes into the last 20% or so of the book and I found it hard to put down. The emotional roller coaster left me with a book hangover I won't soon forget. There was some very descriptive sex, but somehow it didn't feel like porn. Sara Gruen has definitely made it onto my favorite authors list and I will be reading more of her books in future.