Friday, November 2, 2012

Book Review - The House at Riverton

The House at Riverton – Kate Morton

Continuing in my quest to read books outside my normal genres, I noticed that Kate Morton’s books were dirt cheap on the kindle at the moment. This book was hugely popular a few years ago and was plastered everywhere whenever I got on the train to work. The premise sounded intriguing enough and so I took the plunge.

The Blurb:

Summer 1924: 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. Winter 1999: Grace Bradley, 98, one-time housemaid of Riverton Manor, is visited by a young director making a film about the poet's suicide. Ghosts awaken and 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.

It is fair to say the House of Riverton is a slow burner. I never mind this when reading in fact I prefer it to constant all out action the whole way through. I say that with a caveat, I don’t mind slow burners as long as the characters standout as interesting and life-like.

Sadly, for the majority of the House of Riverton the characters are rather bland. The story is narrated by Grace who is a chambermaid at Riverton. Along with the Hartford sisters Hannah and Emmeline the characters are main focus of the novel.

Grace is an old lady recalling her past when she is the stoic maid, careful not to overstep her mark and mindful of her duties. She looks and she hears things but rarely forms any opinions of controvsary. Occasionally she will stick her neck out and perform a sneaky task for Hannah but beyond that is largely just the fly on the wall she purports to be when the director of the film that is being made of the events at Riverton comes enquiring for some inside information.

Emmeline, the younger of the two Hartford sisters fares little better. Although she has some spunk I found her to be largely two dimensional. She is often pigeon-holed into a certain trait as she is mentioned throughout the novel. At first being the needy little sister and later the out of control party animal.

Hannah on the other hand is an interesting character. Kate Morton really does a great character study on the repressed woman yearning for some excitement in her life. The only problem is that quite often Hannah finds herself conforming to the rules society opposes on her. Nevertheless, Hannah’s frustrations and angst are well handled and I found myself routing for her.

The secondary characters are solid enough. Without delving into spoiler territory Kate Morton explores the effects of war to good effect with one character and creates some excitement with a love triangle with another. Most of them are fairly forgettable though such as Teddy who no more that a plot device.

The problem I had with the House of Riverton is that nothing much happens. As I mentioned earlier, I do not need action on every page, but you have to give the characters something to work with. Quite often the events that do occur are so banal and tedious that no wonder the characters are bored of their lives. Maybe, that was the point but it did not make for very stimulating reading. I think there were several opportunities to add a bit of detail to certain events that disappointingly are summarised. One example of this is how Grace love interest is wrapped up. Kate spends a brief page recalling how things end with someone she loved deeply as if it was of no consequence. It is a shame as this was one of the more interesting subplots of the novel.

The plot is always building to the mystery of what happened at Riverton. We are fed various snippets throughout the story but you always get the sense that the book will be judged on the conclusion.

As it happens the conclusion is very good. It is not perfect and it does not make up for the rest of the novel but it is satisfying. The secret that Grace has been hiding her whole life is fairly obvious but still well written. I think the issue I had with it is that once Grace reveals what really happened at Riverton, we don’t get to see the reaction of anyone – so to a certain extant you are left feeling with a sort of “What’s the point” feeling.

Overall, the House of Riverton falls into one of them categories where I spend the majority of the review saying why I wasn’t keen on the book and then still give it a reasonable mark. That is because despite its flaws, by the time I closed the book I was engrossed in the world. It is well written and has stayed with me well after I have finished it. For £0.99 it is certainly worth your time.

My rating: 7.8

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