Family life is not for the fainthearted. Just ask siblings Portia, Vienne, Annie and Lawrence, all of whom have returned to Brunnen, Switzerland to help their widowed mother Madalena celebrate the fortieth anniversary of her lakeside hotel. These adult children, all within waving distance of middle age, share a lifetime of love, rivalry, attachment and betrayal. Add the complications of their individual situations–failed or troubled marriages, resentful children, career confusion–and the reunion is fraught with tension before it even begins.
Author Jane Riddell’s prose is precise and beautiful. She creates complex, flawed characters who believe they know themselves and those around them better than they actually do. Nowhere is this lack of knowledge more apparent than in the children’s view of Madalena. They see their mother as a confident, self-sufficient woman who was strong enough to take the helm of the hotel after her husband’s early death. They have no idea of the debilitating grief she suffered and still suffers to some degree. Madelena’s regret and self-doubt provides the bass note against which all the other characters play.
While all of Riddell’s characters fascinate, they are not equally likable. There’s a grating, selfish quality about Portia in particular. She’s behaved badly towards Vienne and goes to great lengths during the course of the story to keep her secret from being revealed. Despite all of her angst and plotting, I never got the sense that she actually regrets what she’s done. Quite the opposite. It’s almost as if she blames Vienne and believes her sister is the one complicating HER life. Michael, Vienne’s husband, is even worse. In the end, he reveals something of the truth behind his cold, almost cruel behavior towards his wife, whom he professes to actually love, but it’s difficult to accept given what we’ve seen of him. I think my biggest criticism of Riddell is that she does not play fair with Vienne. All of the characters learn something about themselves over the course of their stay in Brunnen. These revelations lead them to make conscious choices about the paths they’ll take. This isn’t true for Vienne. She never really “knows” the truth, and so true choice is denied her. She’s living in hope, which is okay, I suppose. But it left a bitter taste in my mouth.
On the other hand, I have rarely read a book where the setting is so well done it becomes almost a character in its own right. Riddell does a fabulous job transporting her readers to Switzerland. We get to experience its amazing physical beauty and its unexpectedly gritty underside. Also, there’s wonderful insight into Swiss culture. Switzerland was never a country I particularly yearned to visit, now it’s near the top of my must-see list.
I enjoyed WATER’S EDGE and would recommend it to anyone interested in thoughtful, character-driven women’s fiction.