Like most people, I loved Water for Elephants. I loved it so much that I could never read Ape House because I know how those expectations tend to kill the next book, no matter how hard the author tries. (Please feel free to tell me if you think I should reconsider that decision). By now, I figured enough time had passed, and Gruen has certainly gotten her groove back.
Despite the moving prologue to this book, I am still not sure why it needed to be set during World War II. Weren’t people a little busy then to be thinking about the Loch Ness monster? Perhaps it was merely a device to contrast with the two male protagonists, to make them appear even more callous and disrespectful. Honestly, if it weren’t for the promise that the prologue showed, I probably wouldn’t have read too far into this book. It was hard to reconcile a war going on with three gadabouts evading a social scandal who hop a ship to Scotland in search of the elusive beast. Not to mention what a sham that whole enterprise is, but I will try not to spoil anything. I am not sure how historically accurate it was, but for me, any book that uses World War II as a backdrop should be grounded in at least a little bit of fact.
I picked this book from NetGalley because the premise reminded me of The Water Horse, a beautiful story I read with my daughters years ago. When we read that book, we were excited to hear that a film was being made. Of course, the lovely book we enjoyed so much could not cut it for a full-length movie, so it was changed, dramatically (male protagonist instead of female, violent war scenes, etc.) I wanted Gruen’s story to be a grown-up version of that book, but instead, for me, it was that movie.
The irony here is that I didn’t love the parts I normally would, and I’m not sure why. The romance seemed so obvious from the beginning, no surprise and barely any conflict. It was just too easy. In fact, maybe that is what bothered me — everything is so easy. Men avoid war on thin excuses, they easily manage to get a trip across the ocean in the nick of time, love ends and love begins with barely an effort. To be fair, it was not a terrible read; I just had high expectations. The minor characters here are surprisingly compelling, and when Gruen writes about them, her words sing. It is a slog through the main ones, mostly because they are either too bad or too good — and these extremes make it difficult to care about them. I am not ready to give up on Gruen just yet, just not sure if I should try Ape House or wait for whatever she comes up with next.