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MAR 3, 2009


The cover artwork of The House at Riverton depicts the interior of a grand manor house and an elegant, carved balustrade, with the novel’s title superimposed in gold lettering, all promising a rich, old-fashioned good read inside. Happily, debut author Kate Morton delivers, with a sumptuous multi-faceted epic, set in England and spanning nearly a century. Published to critical acclaim in Morton’s native Australia and a bestseller in England, The House at Riverton gives its reader two stories in one—a glimpse into the rarified world of the Edwardian upper class and its serving class that not only selflessly but proudly catered to the master’s every whim, and secondly, the present-day life of ninety-eight year old Grace, who was once a servant at Riverton. Tragic events transpired there in 1924: a poet, a rising young British talent, took his life with a gun on the night of a grand party, witnessed by two sisters who never spoke to each other again. Grace, a witness as well, shouldered the drama and its equally tragic aftermath, ultimately leaving service and memories behind to create another life for herself. It is only when a young filmmaker consults the ninety-eight year old Grace for details on the subject of the film she is creating—the very same house at Riverton, the same tragic events of 1924—that the memories return in full force.

The story, meticulously plotted and researched, alternates between past and present but focuses predominantly on Grace’s adolescent and young adult years, through her decade of service to the Hartford family. The fourteen-year old Grace, new to the job, develops an eternal fascination with the master’s grandchildren, David, Emmaline and the spirited Hannah, who is the same age as Grace. In the manner of the invisible serving class, Grace becomes privy to a host of conversations and adventures of the Hartford children and their elders, gaining a vicarious thrill from these, as well as the glittering social evenings and dinners the house periodically holds. But the advent of World War I casts a shadow on this upper class world, the war’s aftermath forever changing the old way of life for the British classes, extracting a terrible toll on Britain’s families, upper and working class alike.

Following the war, the Hartford family, having suffered its own tragic losses, attempts to adapt accordingly. A reversal of family fortune prompts Hannah to marry a wealthy, well-connected but uncouth man. Emmaline, in contrast, embraces the freedom of the new era, the Roaring 20’s, with its looser dresses, looser morals and frantic gaiety. Hannah has claimed Grace as her own lady’s maid upon her move to her husband’s London home and soon Grace finds herself becoming confidante as well as servant, a closeness that pleases her and cements her loyalty to Hannah. Stakes in the story rise when Robbie, former classmate and comrade of David, the sisters’ brother, appears in London, a handsome, enigmatic figure to whom both sisters are drawn.

To tell more would be to edge too closely to Grace’s long-kept secret and the story’s climax, although Morton is not shy about liberally peppering the narrative with broad foreshadowing of what is to come. More so than the actual climax (we know quite early on, in truth, that there was gunshot, a death and witnesses, after all) however, the story belongs to the ninety-eight year old Grace, as she ponders her life and memories via Dictaphone as a gift of sorts to her beloved but estranged grandson (reserving a neat little twist for the story’s end).

The House at Riverton is a great “curl up by the fire” read, but not without a few minor faults. The story, as mentioned, uses foreshadowing and dropped hints in a way that might have benefited from a subtler touch. Grace, for example, raised by a single mother who left her own work at Riverton upon falling pregnant, puzzles as a young adult about who her father might have been. Her latent reflections, following her mother’s death, are obtuse to the point of being annoying, the reader having figured her parentage out long before. Additionally, the literary devise of using a servant’s invisibility to gain access to other characters’ dialogues and confidences works at times, but gets a bit overused here. A later chapter that is simply titled “Hannah’s story” and switches to her point of view works well and could have been used more elsewhere. But Morton’s writing is otherwise polished and well-done, the switching from past to present handled seamlessly, and Grace’s ninety-eight year old perspective lending a finesse to the story that smoothes out the occasional inconsistency.

This is solid storytelling, particularly in light of the fact that it is Morton’s first novel. No, it is not Ian McEwan’s Atonement, although there are some marked similarities in both novels’ early sections, particularly in the way the first quarter of the book stretches out a brief period of youthful time, luxuriously descriptive, before leaping into faster-paced terrain. It bears resemblance, as well, to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and Robert Altman’s film Gosford Park (a big favorite of mine). Morton, to her credit, is quick to give acknowledgment to the aforementioned material and notable writers of that era whose literary style helped her create her own work. The “author’s note” section at the end of the book makes for interesting reading in itself and serves as a reading list for those who’d like to further explore similar material.

Recommended for fans of the aforementioned films as well as lovers of period literature, particularly the romantic suspense novels of Daphne du Maurier. A delicious, engrossing read, The House at Riverton is a difficult book to put down.

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