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The House at Riverton (thoughts)

January 21, 2008

I received an ARC of Kate Morton’s The House at Riverton through the Barnes and Noble Online First Look Book Club. (whew-I think that deserves an acronym…BNOFLBC…still pretty ridiculous)  You may recall when I received it. Since then, I’d been trying to draw it out, but when the middle of January arrived, I realised I should probably go ahead and finish it if I was ever going to participate in the B&N discussions!

Then, I finished, but it’s taken me quite awhile to decide how I feel about it. The novel’s told through flashbacks; Grace,Chunkster Challenge over ninety, decides that to connect with her grandson she’s going to tell him a story about her deepest secret. That secret dates back to the Edwardian era, when Grace was a servant at Riverton, specifically a lady’s maid to Hannah, one of the daughters of the house and just the same age as her. One night, something tragic happened at Riverton between Hannah, Emme (the other sister), and a poet. We know that pretty much from the beginning…the rest is revealed slowly over time.

Here’s the thing: I really, really enjoyed the first third of the book. Then, in the middle of Part Two, the story started to feel familiar, and by Part Four it felt like I’d already read it some other time. In the Author’s Note, Morton references a number of ‘influences,’ and I have read or seen many of them. Perhaps that’s the source of my strange feeling…I’m certainly not accusing Morton of plagarism, but I kept reading passages and being reminded of The Blind Assassin, or Gosford Park, or Remains of the Day,, or even (though Morton didn’t list it) The Thirteenth Tale. Each of these works had a very strong influence on me, which probably explains why I remember so much about them.

In addition to this issue, in the last two-thirds the characters seemed to flatten out, each becoming more and more like a caricature than a living, breathing person. Grace goes from a girl learning how to be a servant, trying to balance her relationship with her difficult, secretive mother with her newfound fascination for Riverton and the three children (David, Hannah, and Emme), wondering if the coachman Alfred smiles like that at everyone and staying meek in order to appease Nancy (the servant teaching her the ropes) to a dog-like devotion to Hannah, one that she won’t let anything else in her life interfere with. There are certain reasons given for this (that I can’t go into without spoiling the book), but we know from the beginning that after the tragic night, Grace went on to get a PhD and become an archaelogist in an era that wasn’t fond of women-scholars. Obviously, this took a lot of gumption, which she also has in the beginning of the book, so the complete lack of gumption in the second part isn’t explained to my satisfaction. I suppose I’ve never seen anyone change quite that much, and then reverse it all back. And Grace is just one example…the book completely glosses over much of World War I and, while shellshock is integral to the plot, the lack of a fully formed male character to really explore the psychological damage such an experience must have caused is a definite hole. While I can accept it based on assumptions, the huge role it plays felt like it deserved more attention. The characters all become distinctly less sympathetic as the book progress; in the early parts, I was as much in love with David, Hannah, and Emme as Grace herself. By the time of the tragedy, I really could care less what happens to anyone.

The ending itself frustrated me as well; obviously, Morton was going for a tragic effect, but it all just seemed such a waste. Why should I invest myself in such a book if it’s going to turn out that way? In my mind, I’ve reimagined the ending, and I’m much happier about the way everything turns out that way. ;) This quibble, of course, is more my personal taste than any flaw in the book…in general, unless a tragic ending really teaches me something about humanity, or myself, I prefer the happier versions. Well, maybe that’s not true. Ishiguro is one of my favourite authors, and he doesn’t really write happy endings! I can’t pinpoint the difference, but his endings feel necessary and true, while this ending felt kind of silly, an over-the-top childish cry for attention.

Also, I think Morton is a bit too fond of coincidences. Her sensibility is almost Dickensian, and while all of them have enough of a grounding in various situations that they’re not completely unbelievable, the pile towards the end is definitely teetering. I found myself rolling my eyes more than once, which probably isn’t a good sign.

So, after all that, I feel obligated to point out that I still gave the book three stars. And therein lies my difficult, why it took me so long to write about this book, why I felt so ambivelent. The first third is so, so good that I’m not sure what to do about it. There is this perfectly exquisite scene, when Hannah, Emme, and David are putting on a play for their family and friends of the family. They had to choose a biblical story, per Grandmama’s wishes, but Hannah wanted to protest her father’s prohibition on schooling for women. So, she bullied David and Emme into choosing the story of Miriam and Aaron, whom God catches gossiping about Moses. He gives Miriam leprosy, and merely tells Aaron not to do it again. Can you guess which part Hannah plays? After Miriam and Aaron have been reprimanded,

…Hannah appeared from stage left. The audience drew breath as one. She was dressed immaculately in men’s clothing: a suit, top hot, walking cane, fob watch and, on the bridge of her nose, Mr Frederick’s glasses. She walked to centre stage, twirling her can like a dandy. Her voice, when she spoke, was an excellent imitation of her father’s. “My daughter will learn that there are some rules for girls and others for boys.” She took a deep breath, straightened her hat. “To allow otherwise is to start down the slippery slope to women’s suffrage.”

My God, it’s pitch perfect! I don’t know what happened after the first third; if Morton just got tired, so decided she wanted to it, cliches be damned, or if she couldn’t decide how to get to her ending and keep the prose alive and sparkling. Something happened, though. So, I’d say give this one a shot (it’s US publication date is in April); maybe you’ll enjoy it more than me. And please go read Danielle’s review; she summarises all of the really good aspects of the book.

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Favourite Passages
“She’s crying for her own lost love,” Emmeline said with a sigh.
Hannah rolled her eyes.
“It’s true!” emmeline said. “I heard Grandmama tell Lady Clem. Before she came to us, Miss Prince was engaged to be married.”
“Came to his sense, I suppose,” Hannah said.
“He married her sister instead,” Emmeline said.
This silenced Hannah, but only briefly. “She should have sued him for breach of promise.”
“That’s what Lady said – and worse – but Grandmama said Miss Prince didn’t want to cause him trouble.”
“Then she’s a fool,” Hannah said. “She’s better off without him.”
“What a romantic,” David said archly. “The poor lady’s hopelessly in love with a man she can’t have and you begrudge reading her the occasional piece of sad poetry. Cruelty, thy name is Hannah.” (33)

Then, with a glance at the door and a speeding heart, I unloaded my secret haul.
There were three volumes in all. Dog-eared green covers with faded gold lettering. I stowed them at the back of the bottom drawer and covered them with my shawl, careful to fold it right around so they were completely concealed. Mr Hamilton had been clear. The Holy Bible was acceptable, but any reading material beyond that was most likely injurious and must be presented for his approval or otherwise risk confiscation. I was not a rebel – indeed, back then I had a fierce sense of duty – but to live without Holmes and Watson was unthinkable. (21)

She doesn’t know I cry for the changing times. That just as I reread favourite books, some small part of me hoping for a different ending, I find myself hoping against hope that the war will never come. That this time, somehow, it will leave us be. (71)

It was not a pretty face, but there was something striking about it; an illusion of beauty I would learn to recognize as a mark of the chronically chic. (281)

I cannot abide fortune-tellers. I was once told I had a short life line; did not properly shake the vague sense of foreboding until I was midway through my sixties. (291)

7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 22, 2008 7:55 am

    Great review – I also read this for the B&N First Look Program. I totally agree about the familiarity of the novel – I thought it paralleled The Thirteenth Tale…although of course it had its differences as well. I rated the book higher than you – but that was based mostly on the fact that I couldn’t seem to put it down – it had me turning the pages and I thought the writing was good (especially, as you note, the first 1/3rd of the novel). My review is here if you are interested!

  2. January 22, 2008 8:02 pm

    Wendy, I agree! I went and read your review, because of course I’m interested. :)

  3. January 23, 2008 8:14 am

    Eva–Sorry, I meant to look for that link for you and it completely escaped my mind. If I don’t write things down I’m too forgetful! Glad you found it in any case. I think you’re right that there are certain similarities to other books of this type –the whole upstairs/downstairs thing (it’s been too long since I’ve read the Ishiguro and Atwood, but hopefully she didn’t take anything identical from those books). I think you’re right that the first half is stronger than the second, but I was so curious by then that I was hooked and had to keep reading. Although the ending wasn’t happy for Hannah, ultimately Grace did get together with the soldier from her youth? Or am I making that up in my mind–LOL? I hate it when details become fuzzy.

  4. January 23, 2008 8:30 am

    I bought this from the UK late last year but haven’t gotten to it yet….so to honest I skimmed part of your review so as not to be influenced. I am looking forward to reading it!

  5. January 23, 2008 10:55 am

    Danielle-you’re right. :) They ended up together in their sixties, lol. I definitely think Grace ends up with a pretty good life! Don’t worry about the link, lol. I was hooked as well-I think I stayed up a bit late to finish it! But then, when I did finish it, it felt like a bit of a letdown. I don’t know….I have very mixed feelings about this book, lol.

    Tara, I always skim reviews of books I plan on reading, even when I know there are no spoilers, so I completely understand that. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on it…I keep swinging back and forth!


  1. The House at Riverton
  2. The House at Riverton, Kate Morton « Jenny’s Books

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