I found an autographed copy of Kate Morton’s debut novel, The House at Riverton, at Books Inc. in Berkeley, CA. I had Morton’s newer release, The Forgotten Garden, on my wishlist already and couldn’t pass up an autographed copy of her first novel.
The first 200 pages were slow moving and initially the book didn’t feel that original if you’re at all familiar with British society in the early 1900’s. I actually considered not finishing it but I’m glad I did because the second half was so much better.
The story is narrated by Grace Bradley, who begins working as a servant in the Riverton House, home to the Hartford family, when she’s a child. She’s close in age to the Lord’s daughters, Hanna and Emmeline, and eventually after many years serving the family, she becomes a lady’s maid to Hanna. As a maid, Grace is privy to many private conversations in the Riverton House and also becomes very close to Hanna.
Grace narrates the book as 90-year old woman in a nursing home, bearing a long-kept secret about the Hartford family and their decline. A movie director approaches her regarding a film they’re making about Riverton and after many years of not thinking about the Hartford’s, Grace beings to relive her days as a maid. The novel moves back and forth between present day and the past; the present day portion of the book seems so far fetched…but I suppose it serves it’s purpose to tell the story of Riverton.
The book jacket alludes to the death of a young poet and a secret Grace kept all her life–and up to the halfway point of the book, yes, there are many references to “that night,” the family’s suffering and where things would lead, but 200 pages of build-up is a little much. Once you pass the half-way point, the real story of Hanna, her husband Teddy, Emmeline and the young poet begins to unravel and the reading gets good. And the closing chapters of The House at Riverton are the best part of the book.
Oddly enough, I happened to be reading The House at Riverton at the same time I discovered Masterpiece Classic’s Downton Abbey, which was a riveting account of a family of aristocrats and their servants, living in an enormous country home in England before WWI begins. I adored the Downton Abbey series, written and created by Emmy-award winning Julian Fellowes, and Downton Abbey II premiers in January! It was eerie how much the first half of The House at Riverton was similar to Downton Abbey, in focusing on the servants and their pecking order, how an estate is run, women finding their voice in society, etc. Though at the end of her novel Morton actually credits another, similar Masterpiece Classic series, Upstairs Downstairs, for feeding her fascination for this time-period.
Maybe a good beach read–and maybe more interesting if you haven’t read or watched much about England in the early 1900’s?