On the eve of a glittering society party, by the lake of a grand English country house, a young poet takes his life. The only witnesses, sisters Hannah and Emmeline Hartford, will never speak to each other again.
Grace Bradley, ninety-eight, one-time housemaid of Riverton Manor, is visited by a young director making a film about the poet’s suicide. Ghosts awaken and old memories – long consigned to the dark reaches of Grace’s mind – begin to sneak back through the cracks. A shocking secret threatens to emerge, something history has forgotten but Grace never could.
Set as the war-shattered Edwardian summer surrenders to the decadent twenties, The House at Riverton is a thrilling mystery and a compelling love story.
~Blurb from the back of the book
I love these kind of stories where the past and present mixes together nicely. I usually rate or review them higher than they need to be, because such books really hit my sweet spot.
This book is another one of those. It has all the elements I enjoy in a book: glamor, mystery, wartime tragedy, romance, everything in a nice little package. And I enjoyed this book, really I did.
But, now when I sit to write this review, all I can think about are the negatives.
Start of stuff I didn’t like in the novel:
- Dragging middle section
- Inconsistent characterization of Hannah and Emmeline
- Uneven quality of writing
- Needlessly tragic ending
I’ll explore these negatives in a little more detail here.
The beginning starts off really beautifully, it’s well written, the scenes are set very well, the relationships established perfectly. Great going.
And then World War 1 happens, and things start to go haywire. There is a very distinct change in style between the pre-war and the post-war book. So distinct that it made me suspect that there was a big time gap between writing these sections or that something got lost while editing.
There is a drastic change in the characters as well. Hannah who so far seems to be an independent-minded, intelligent, strong-willed girl suddenly turns into a meek and mild person who takes stupid decisions impulsively. Emmeline who so far seems like a sweet but dim child, suddenly turns out mad bad party girl who also does something incredibly stupid. Now, I am not saying that characters must stay stagnant throughout a novel, but the change in these two was quite abrupt, and not good for the book.
What ended up happening was that I who was reading along nicely suddenly realized that I was looking forward more to Grace, the maid’s story than the story of these 2 sisters, which was the main focus of the story.
Anyway, I keep on reading, and I come to the bit where Hannah and Robbie meet again, and the story starts to liven up a bit. Hannah and Robbie’s love story is quite nicely written, and I really enjoyed reading this section.
Unfortunately, this section is all too short, and we come to the last part of the novel – The Beginning of the End. And this is where the book went downhill. You see, I hate needlessly tragic stories.
There is tragedy indicated from the very first word of the novel, but the events that lead up to the tragedy are ludicrous. When the final shot is fired, instead of feeling sad, there was just a faint sense of anti-climax and irritation at Hannah and Emmeline’s stupidity.
Also, the Shakespearean heights of the tragedy (I am trying to avoid spoilers here), was just a bit too much for the kind of novel it is. It just felt way overdone.
Another disappointment was the lack of focus on Grace’s life after the events at that party at Riverton. We go on to hear that she lived a rich life, doing amazing things, but all this is revealed only in bits and pieces, and I wanted more, way more than what I was getting.
End of stuff I didn’t like about the novel….
After reading my review, you might be forgiven for thinking this is a book that is best avoided. Not so, it’s a decently written book, the story is set nicely. I liked it while I was reading it, and I think the ending spoiled things a bit.
I think the reason my review sounds negative overall is because this is one of those books that doesn’t fit neatly into a genre. It’s women’s fiction all right. I can’t see dudes reading this but it’s better written and better plotted than most women’s fiction. It is historical fiction, but the history is just background for the story and there isn’t enough historical detail. This book tries hard to be literary fiction, but isn’t written well enough to get there.
What this is, however, is a good debut novel by Kate Morton, and is perfect comfort reading. If you don’t get into it with high literary or low trashy expectations (it’s neither), you might like this novel better than I did.