Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Truth and Consequences: A Review on The House at Riverton by Kate Morton

When a young director seeks out Grace Bradley, looking for answers about her time serving at the Riverton House, a new story begins to emerge. The director is making a movie about the tragedy that happened at Riverton, about a young poet who shot himself, and the two sisters, Hannah and Emmeline, that witnessed the event. But there are two sides to every story and Grace is the last person alive that knows the truth about that terrible night.

I can't begin to put into words the sheer enormity of the awe, or perhaps a better word is admiration, that I feel right now, having just completed Kate Morton's The House at Riverton. I've read the reviews, the ones that say the book moves too slow or that it has too much extraneous information and I have to disagree. The book is long, coming up to a solid 468 pages in the paperback edition, and yet I can't think of any one area that could have been shortened, where the detail that Morton gave to her story wasn't necessary to the effect of the novel in its entirety.

I bought this book years ago. I remember seeing it at my local bookstore and always thinking that eventually I'd pick up a copy but lo and behold, even when I did pick it up it took me nearly three years to finally read it. I regret that decision now and I'm glad because I have copies of each of Morton's subsequent works already in my library (I know, if I hadn't read her first novel, why did I even bother to pick up the others? I have no logical answer except to say that maybe because I knew that when I finally manged to finish Riverton, I'd want those other books in my hand faster than you can blink.) Suffice to say I will gladly pick up the next release when it hits stores this October.

Why you ask? What makes THIS work so compelling? It's the sheer sweep of history that makes up the scale of this novel that I find so interesting. When I started reading the book, I'll admit, I had some doubts as to whether I could fully immerse myself into the world. I'm not much for historical books, usually, but when I got past the initial chapters and joined Grace working at Riverton, I found myself undeniably hooked. The story follows Grace at two different points in her life, the first being the present, where she's is 98 years old and staying in a nursing home, and the second being June 1914, where Grace has just turned 14 and been freshly hired on as a housemaid at the Riverton House. The story continues from there, following young Grace as she learns the ins and outs of working on a staff and then coming back to old Grace, as she struggles under the weight of the truth that she has kept to herself for so long, all along dealing with the issues of loyalty and trust between friends and family.

Morton's writing style is expansive. It's not overly emotional or flowery, a good thing when an author is handling history. It's precise in its depiction of the life of one housemaid and the events that she experienced as a member of Riverton House. The relationships seen in the book are shown to have inexplicable links to various moments throughout the entire novel. The connections are undeniable once they've been discovered and yet the key to Morton's style is the slow unveiling of a story with an intricate plot. The precise details may not be historically accurate (I've seen some discussions on this) but as I said, the expanse of the world that Morton has created here is impressive and it gives an air of confidence in the telling of the story. As a reader, I had various questions come up as I went through the story but I can tell you that by the time I reached the end of this book, I felt that every plot thread was sufficiently handled. Nothing was forgotten and the ending left me satisfied with having read a truly great book.

This book is not a mystery per se, although there is a troubling tragedy at the center of this book. If you're looking for excitement, then I suggest you move on from this release. But if you can stand to wait it out and allow yourself to be sucked in to this world, the revelations that come about have enough of the sense of tragic air and mystery to satisfy those more inclined to a good gothic novel. The House at Riverton is a bit reserved in that area but it does enough, I believe, to satisfy those inclinations. The plot is adequate and very straightforward, despite the fact that it follows two different points in time. The hook is to find out precisely what Grace knows, the secret she has kept about being witness to the suicide of a poor poet down by a lake, with Hannah and Emmeline for company, and the reasons for why she has kept quiet.

In terms of characters, the cast is long. A lot of detail is given to the most important names, the Hartford sisters, Hannah and Emmeline, and of course, Grace. As a narrator, I appreciated the reserve that Grace had in her voice. And it is very recognizably at times a voice, as the story comes out not only in reminisces but also on recorded tapes that Grace intends to leave to her grandson, Marcus. I loved the idea that even after the decades she has spent out of service earning a doctorate and traveling the world, Grace still acts modestly, simply. She's not given to grand examples of emotion. Her voice, in a way, reflects her past position as a housemaid and a lady's maid. It gives the sense of what was expected of people in those positions, the idea that while their employers may have ignored them in their duties, these workers stood to the side and were able to take everything in, down to the most minute detail. Which is why I say the amount of information seen in the book is necessary. It conveys everything when Grace is unable to put each event or emotion out in the open. It reflects the fact that while she may have been privy to certain shared confidences, she remained on the outside of a world that she knew everything about but was never truly a part of. And it is her role as an observer that drew her into the world of the Hartford sisters and led her to her fate as a witness to a tragedy.

The Hartford sisters were interesting to say the least. For a long time Grace is seen to have a particular interest in Hannah, the sister she was closer to in age and the one she felt an almost sisterly devotion to as she continued to work at Riverton. The glimpses we readers are given of Hannah in Grace's memories are enough to allow the audience to appreciate the sense of adventure that Hannah has and her longing to see the world. She is headstrong, a realist with a dreamer's tendencies, and a romantic without ever realizing that fact until it is too late. The book is as much Hannah's story as it is Grace's. On the other hand, Emmeline leaves a sour taste in my mouth. As the youngest of three children, naturally she would be spoiled but it's harder for Emmeline, as she is more the type of child that has been spoiled by neglect. Without enough parental supervision, Emmeline has been allowed to grow up wild, the type of young woman who feels that the world owes her something and she is determined to steal it from it's cold dead hand, if that's what it takes to secure her happiness. The pair of them start out close but as the years go by the differences in their characters creates a chasm that no amount of goodwill or sisterly affection can mend.

And so the main cast is set and while the story revolves mainly around them, there are enough minor characters to supplement other aspects of the plot. There's Grace's mother, a woman who was forced to leave service at Riverton when she ended up pregnant; David, the eldest Hartford child who died during WWI; and Mr. Frederick, the odd duck of the Hartford family, whose business endeavors have left him more often with ruin than success. We have Nancy, the housemaid above Grace in rank at the Riverton House, who liked to correct Grace's every move, Mr. Hamilton and Mrs. Townsend, the head butler and cook that keep everything running smoothly behind the scenes at Riverton, and Alfred, the footman, who enjoyed Grace's company. And that's only the beginning. As Grace, Hannah and Emmeline grow up the scene shifts to follow Hannah, and subsequently Grace, to London with Hannah's earnest husband Teddy, his nefarious sister Deborah, and a chance meeting with an old acquaintance, the tragic Robbie Hunter. As I said, the cast is long, and every character is given its due, no matter how small a part they may seem to have and yes, I haven't named everyone here, just the ones off the top of my head, so it's up to other readers to find out the rest of the cast of characters and their importance.

The plot may seem familiar to some but it's the tragic detail that makes this story intriguing and appealing. The book seems to revolve around one secret, but the fact of the matter is that this book is filled with various little secrets and omissions of truth. The trick to appreciating this book is in uncovering them all.

Rating: 9 Stars

The only reason I'm not giving this book a solid 10 Stars is because I want people to understand: this is a LONG book (and yes, I understand, this turned out to be a long review). If you don't have the patience or the interest then I guarantee, you will NOT finish this novel. I was looking for a long, engrossing read, and I found it here. I look forward to the effect that The Forgotten Garden will have on me, as that is up next on my long reading list. At the rate I'm going, I will be officially caught up with Morton's works by the time the new release in October arrives.

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