What the elders want the elders will get, but it will come at a cost.
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
First Published: 2006
Date Reviewed: 27th August 2012
At 98, Grace is approached by a film-maker who is creating a movie about the murder mystery surrounding the house she, Grace, used to work at. What the world doesn’t know, however, is the truth; and this Grace has kept to herself her entire life. Only now, facing inevitable death, does she decide to create some cassette tapes for her grandson explaining everything, including what really happened on the night a famous poet killed himself at the lake.
The House At Riverton is a long look at the early decades of the 20th century and how society came to dictate lives in such a way that people made drastic choices they wouldn’t nowadays. The book could have easily been cut by about 300 pages – the back story, whilst fascinating, especially for those with a particular interest in the era, is unnecessary, and it takes three quarters of the book for the story to actually begin. The build-up is for the most part predictable and thus all the extra details surrounding it are irrelevant. It’s nice to get an idea of what went on in the characters’ heads (so far as Grace can determine) but what would otherwise have been a big reveal is, of course, not there.
However this doesn’t mean that the book is a failure, indeed even if it required heavy editing, the superfluous content does illustrate well the life and society of the time. If you’re a reader looking for a thrilling mystery you won’t find it here – this is a book for people who enjoy period dramas and the sorts of incidences that were considered monumental back then but would be a non-issue today. Family structure is discussed, such as marriage in order to produce heirs to keep hold of property. And seeing as the book follows the lives of a couple of generations of the same family, Morton also details, through the characters themselves, how change occurred as the children of the 1910s became the adults of the 1920s and began to challenge the strict rules imposed upon them by their elders. Both these issues, woven together, cause the most conflict in the family, as well as the streak of feminism and want for equality that comes as second nature to one of the young women, Hannah.
It would be fair to say that although the characters are well written, their purpose is to enable Morton to put her point across and to explain history and society, and so whilst the reader knows them enough they are not the sort to commit to memory in a fond manner.
It should be noted that The House At Riverton isn’t all that much of a romance story and that the mystery aspect of the book is hampered by the fact that the reader knows the basics, even if the true mystery does remain a secret. Yet, in these two factors there does remain some interest – the romantic threads form more of the commentary on society, and as there are a few of them Morton is able to look at the issue as a whole in detail. The veils over the classes are pulled down and Morton shows the reader that the relationship between upstairs society and downstairs subservience was a lot more complicated than either section would have admitted, maybe than they would have known. The romances also highlight the need for loyalty that is often inherent in us. The true mystery is what the film-maker, Ursula, is after, but only Grace knows it, and the reader is only party to it from being inside Grace’s head; thus the ending is good, as it ties everything together and the reader being given all the ingredients to work out what would happen next. Indeed the reader may know more than the characters, even after those happenings happened.
The House At Riverton is too long for what it sets out to accomplish, and the real thrill takes a while to get going; it is recommended thus as a good resource for gaining knowledge of past society and exploring the class system inherent in the day.
September 6, 2012, 10:10 am
I have been unsure about reading this book for sometime now. After reading your review I probably won’t be rushing out to get it, but I think I’m still pretty interested. Mainly because I love this time period.
September 6, 2012, 2:13 pm
I really appreciate your review, because I felt exactly this way about The Forgotten Garden, another book by her. It was just TOO LONG with no valid reason. I couldn’t even finish it!
September 13, 2012, 12:17 pm
When it comes to historical fiction, and lengthy ones at that, I think a real interest in the periods helps to get through them. Otherwise you are just sitting there willing them to end.
I am a big Kate Morton fan, The Forgotten Garden, her second book, is my favourite of those she has written, it sparked my sudden obsession with reading (I was a reader before, but not to the extent I am now). I also adored House at Riverton, but my enjoyment of her novels comes from my love of novels which dip in and out of the past. Her third novel wasn’t up to the standard of her other two but I will be buying her forth with the same enthusiasm as I had with the other three. I will add however, that I think if I read them now they would not have been as amazing to me as when I did read them.
I think you might like The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield much more as a novel set in a similar period and being of a similar ilk.
September 13, 2012, 3:16 pm
Jessica: I was told by a few people to read The Forgotten Garden instead, or at least first. I’ve not read that one yet, but by most accounts it’s better. It was the time period that caught me too, and it is worth a read, but maybe later on.
Allison: Interesting to hear your thoughts on The Forgotten Garden, it’s always good to get both sides of the debate. It sounds a good book, but looking at the length it does match Riverton. I guess she’s a lover of details and extra character development.
Alice: Yes, I have to say that had I not been so interested in the period it would have been difficult. I don’t think my review would have changed, but I definitely saw the necessity for interest in being able to enjoy the book. In other books where the mystery takes more of a role it wouldn’t matter, but here it does.
From what I’ve heard of it your admission about The Forgotten Garden only serves to interest me further, it certainly sounds brilliant. I think I understand your saying that they are better for your having read them earlier, I’ve realised the same when I’ve re-read older books. Sometimes a book works incredibly well when you don’t read as much, though I reckon that something to be celebrated, except perhaps in the case of Twilight fan fictions…
I’ve read about The Thirteenth Tale but never knew if it was for me because of the divide in opinion. You recommending it directly I’ll take as opinion enough. I’ll have a look for in when I next go on a spree, thanks for the recommendation!