Title: The House at Riverton
Author: Kate Morton
Narrator: Caroline Lee
Audiobook Length: 18 hours, 52 minutes
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books):
“The House at Riverton is a gorgeous debut novel set in England between the wars. It is the story of an aristocratic family, a house, a mysterious death and a way of life that vanished forever, told in flashback by a woman who witnessed it all and kept a secret for decades.
Grace Bradley went to work at Riverton House as a servant when she was just a girl, before the First World War. For years her life was inextricably tied up with the Hartford family, most particularly the two daughters, Hannah and Emmeline.
In the summer of 1924, at a glittering society party held at the house, a young poet shot himself. The only witnesses were Hannah and Emmeline and only they — and Grace — know the truth.
In 1999, when Grace is ninety-eight years old and living out her last days in a nursing home, she is visited by a young director who is making a film about the events of that summer. She takes Grace back to Riverton House and reawakens her memories. Told in flashback, this is the story of Grace’s youth during the last days of Edwardian aristocratic privilege shattered by war, of the vibrant twenties and the changes she witnessed as an entire way of life vanished forever.
The novel is full of secrets — some revealed, others hidden forever, reminiscent of the romantic suspense of Daphne du Maurier. It is also a meditation on memory, the devastation of war and a beautifully rendered window into a fascinating time in history.”
Thoughts: Having enjoyed The Forgotten Garden as much as I did, I was eagerly anticipating delving into Kate Morton’s detailed image of the English gentry during the turn of the century, otherwise known as The House at Riverton. Unfortunately, the fact that The House at Riverton was her first novel is very apparent in some of the inconsistencies among the characters and general predictability of the overall plot. Still enjoyable, it is just not as strong as her follow-up novels.
The biggest issues with the novel is with the various characters and their choices. There are several characters which are simply detestable. While one or two are okay, more than five such characters becomes a bit unrealistic. For a novel in which Ms. Morton was trying to capture the feel of the era, having characters that were more cartoonish or caricaturish defeats her purpose. Also, some of the choices made by Grace and Hannah were also, in my opinion, far-fetched. Choosing servitude over marriage, siblings over happiness – these choices lost the element of authenticity that characterizes the majority of the novel.
Also, Ms. Morton falls into the trap of any novel set in the present and uses flashbacks and memories to tell the majority of the story, as the present-day scenes fall flat in comparison to the memories. They are not as vivid and not as interesting, and the reader often feels that these scenes are best skipped because they do little to nothing to further the overarching plot. Many times, old Grace would flip between past and present every other sentence, and for a listener, this rapidity between tenses becomes tedious and very confusing. It is a plot device that is quite popular and effective when done well, but The House at Riverton would have been a better novel had the entire story stayed in the past.
What remains enjoyable is the detail and vividness of the imagery. The clashes between old and new, Victorian versus Edwardian, and pre-war versus post-war are amazingly crisp and clear. Every character, from the humblest to the most ennobled, struggles to make sense of the rapidly changing world, and their confusion is understandable. Ms. Morton portrays the quiet countryside with the same attention to detail as the glittery gaucheness of the Roaring Twenties, making the reader feel that he or she has truly stepped into the past.
Caroline Lee is a delightful narrator; however, throughout the production of this audiobook, she developed a nasty head cold, and her voice definitely suffered as a result. It became rather nasally and weak. While I know she could not help it, I did find the results distracting because it forced me to focus on her voice more than on the overall performance. Granted, it made me chuckle and sympathize with her, but I was still taken out of the story as a result. Thankfully, her cold was the worst part about her narration. She does an excellent job with various English accents and does a passable job tackling the American ones. It is easy to differentiate between characters through her intonation and affected accent, and with a cast of characters that can be overwhelming, this is a great thing.
The House at Riverton is an enjoyable novel even though I did find fault with many individual elements. The story itself is intriguing and does much to countermand the weaker parts of the story. For a debut novel, it is a valiant effort and showcases the potential Ms. Morton has as a writer. Having read one of her subsequent novels prior to this one though, it only highlights the gaps between her first and later novels. Had I read The House at Riverton first, I suspect I would feel differently about it than I do. That being said, I am still anxious to read her latest novel, as I now know just how much Ms. Morton improved in her storytelling.