Sunday, 9 October 2011

CBR3 Book 70: "The House at Riverton" by Kate Morton

Publisher: Pan Books
Page count: 599 pages
Rating: 4 stars
Date begun: August 29th, 2011
Date finished: September 4th, 2011

During a lavish party on the grounds of Riverton Manor, the famous poet Robbie Hunter commits suicide in 1924. The only witnesses to the event, sisters Hannah and Emmeline Hartford, never spoke to each other again, and both women died within a year of the poet. Only one other person, Hannah's maid Grace, knows the truth about what really happened that evening.

In 1999, a film is being made about the tragic events, and the director is wanting to speak to Grace, the only surviving person from that night, to find out the truth of what happened. Grace is 98 years old, and living in a home, but all to clearly remembers her life at Riverton, from when she came there as a chamber maid in 1914. Talking to the director stirs up her memories, and as she doesn't want to die before confessing her secrets, she records her memories on tapes for her grandson, Marcus, wanting him to know the truth about her life and the events that led to Robbie Hunter's death.

The story switches between Grace's life in the past, starting in 1914, when she is hired as a maid at the manor. Grace's mother had previously been a maid there, and several of the staff fondly remembers her. Grace is well aware of her place, but is very taken with the three Hartford children, the grandchildren of the current earl. She observes them from afar, and develops a close bond with Hannah, the eldest of the Hartford sisters. Later, when Hannah gets married, she becomes her ladies' maid.

The other half of the story recounts Grace's current life, and gives glimpses into the life she lived after she stopped being a maid, got an education, got married and had a child of her own. Grace was never too attached to her daughter, but clearly loves her grandson very much. She is worried about him, and determined that he know all her secrets, so he can get a complete picture of where he comes from.

The House at Riverton is the first novel I've read by Kate Morton, but I can see why she's so popular. The intercutting of present and past in the novel keeps the reader interested. There's a definite touch of melodrama in the novel, with scandals, unfaithfulness, sibling rivalries, the after effects of the First World War, and of course, deep dark secrets. Some are not really supposed to be secret to the reader, there were at least a couple that were very clearly hinted at in the narrative, and only the slowest glue sniffing kids at the back would be surprised at the reveal of some of them (for instance the identity of Grace's father), but it was incredibly entertaining, and I can see why her novels are so incredibly popular. I will certainly seek out more of them.

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