Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Book Review - Kate Morton's The House at Riverton

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton
Published by: Atria Books
Publication Date: January 1st, 2006
Format: Hardcover, 473 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy (different edition then one reviewed)

Grace is dying. In her life she has done many things. From being a Doctor in archaeology, a nurse in a field hospital during WWII, to the grandmother of a famous writer, she has lived a full life. Yet it's the time she worked in the great house at Riverton that everyone wants to know about. The tragedies of the family she served, but most importantly, the fateful night when the poet Robbie Hunter blew his brains out during a party. The story everyone knows isn't the truth. There's a movie being made at the house about that night... Grace is relieved when she realizes that they got it wrong. They don't know. They haven't guessed. But even thinking about that time she so easily slips into the past. Grace is there watching fate unfold once again. Grace is the only one alive who knows what happened that night and she has to decide if she is going to take the secret with her to the grave or not. Time is running out.

The House at Riverton, or by it's original and far more apt title, The Shifting Fog, is a painful and laborious read from a first time author. I spent hundreds and hundreds of pages waiting for something, anything, to happen, but alas this hope was in vain. Having read two of Kate Morton's later books I felt like I could feel her struggling with The House at Riverton. She hadn't yet developed the knack of creating narrative and likable characters that fill her world of gently peeling wallpaper and mysterious houses. There's also the issue that she seems to have a fixed set of themes that she uses, which could form any of her books basic premise, and then she builds from there. As a reader, there is only so many times you can read about the Grandmother/Mother figure dying with a secret about where they really come from, paternity/maternity, and those left behind finding out the truth. Yes, you can spin this "time slip" framework differently and have a great read, but in all seriousness, you are best left skipping this installment.

The boredom though was nothing compared to the lack of originality displayed here. In fact, if you just skip to the end and read Kate Morton's "Author's Note" she handily writes out all the things she's "borrowing" to write The House at Riverton. So if I were you, I'd not read the book and read her sources instead. Firstly, I seriously want to know, when did it become standard that all cooks and all butlers had to be Mrs. Bridges and Hudson from Upstairs, Downstairs? I mean, there was a time prior to Upstairs, Downstairs, I know that might come as a surprise to many, but there was. During this era where there books of this type? I really want to know, because Upstairs, Downstairs has become the seminal work in this class system based writings and has influenced so many other works that I really would like to know if there's perhaps someone else these writers could emulate once in awhile if they are unable to summon any originality? Yes, it's cool that Mrs. Bridges and Hudson have become the standard archetypes, but seriously Kate, when you even copy their mannerisms, their physical presence, even down to Mrs. Bridges's topknot... well... it makes me want to watch Upstairs, Downstairs, and not read your book.

Let's get to the "borrowing" that bothered me the most. For, oh, I don't know, 199 pages, there is no plot. Nothing at all. Zip, nadda, zilch. Then with the appearance of Teddy Luxton I noticed a plot kind of faintly in the background... a familiar plot... in fact, the plot to The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford. That's right, Hannah became Linda and Teddy is 100% Tony Kroesig! The fact that she fell for him because he did the one romantic gesture of his life at the right time, the fact he's a banker! Oh, and then later the whole German angle. It's ok to make a reference here or there to Nancy Mitford, I mean, modern literature set during the 20s does look back and is strongly influenced by the writing of that time period, mainly Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, but come on Kate! You seriously couldn't take it further, that it to the next step? Take it anywhere then the boring predictability of where this book went. At least Nancy Mitford had the sparkle and wit to embody these bright young things, you just built a book around the most boring character ever to exist, Grace. 

And Grace is where the book falls completely to tatters. To have the most boring, the most ineffectual lead ever be the narrator of your book, well, there was no chance that The House at Riverton could work. Grace is so dense and naive and a "yes man" that the book's lack of forward momentum is obvious. An object in motion will stay in motion while an object at rest will stay at rest, and Grace is a giant lump of immovable object. She sits, observes, and does as she's told. In fact, I have such a hard time rectifying this boring individual to the old lady that everyone heralds for having such an interesting life that I don't believe they are the same person, they just couldn't be. A throw away line quoting Agatha Christie about Poirot having the ability to be a great archaeologist and Grace's love of Poirot making her become an archaeologist doesn't make sense of the intervening years! Yes, Grace's naivety and stupidity meant that in the past her actions lead to horrific consequences, but seriously, doing something stupid doesn't make you smart. It may fundamentally change you but it can't up your IQ. I flat out refuse to believe that this dumb little maid ended up a Doctor. There is nothing in the narrative to support this change and so it is my belief that they are just humoring the old lady because they don't think she's right in the head, being the simpleton we have been given tons of evidence in support of. Yes Grace, you were a great "Doctor" you really really were. And your life story, oh, so fascinating, tell it to the tape recorder so I can listen to it over and over again. Um, no.


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