Well, I have just finished reading Kate Morton’s The House at Riverton, and if I were questioned as to whether, in general, I would recommend this book to other readers, my answer would be “Yes.” Now, if said readers , for whatever reason, resisted my advice or contended that they had started the novel and found it dull or disappointing, my response would not, however, be to try to kindle their enthusiasm for the work or to spout praise in the hope of getting them to give the book another chance.
There is a certain set of reader expectations with which some may approach this book that are bound to lead to disappointment. According to the negative reviews I surveyed (very few in number compared to the positive ones), the whole setup of the book, which promises, in the end, to take the reader beyond the conventional explanation of fictitious Modernist-era poet Robbie Hunter’s death at a Riverton social gathering (suicide). It is to, and does, reveal the secret that Grace Reeves, former Riverton servant and later lady’s maid to Hannah (Hartford) Luxton, has kept about the death from the early 1920s until 1999. This may lead readers to expect a series of plot twists that represent the height of cleverness, but some who approached the book expecting such a performance express great disappoiontment. I cannot say that I found the ending to derive from all that ingenious a “twist” myself, but such a “twist,” rather than what I was seeking was, to a certain extent, something I feared—twists like the one that seemed to be absent from disappointed readers’ experiences, I have found, should often be categorized less appreciately as “gimmicky.” So I instead approached this book with the fear of a grand gimmick to come that, thankfully, never did.
Another point stressed by comdemning reviewers was an ostensible cliched quality pervading the major characters of the novel with the excedption of Grace. Overall, although I would not, let’s say, be enthused to read a second novel in which one of Morton’s major characters besides Grace was given the protagonist’s seat do that I might further explore his or her great complexity in further depth, nor did I find the chief figures in the novel boring or predictable. At one point, I begtan to feel that way about Emmeline, the younger of the two Hartford sisters, but I think my own angle of perspective was the issue. Had I been thinking throughout about what Emmeline’s view of her own place in the Hartford family and as a woman of her time as shaped in her response to older siblings Hannah and David, the relationship between them, and the pair’s relationship to others both inside and outside the family, I think I would have found Emmeline more intriguing throughout. It’s also important to note that Grace’s recollections are the heart of the novel, which means that we should not expect the character portrayals to explore some possibilities they might have if, for instance, an omnisicent, third-person narrator had controlled the text. Comparing this text to others in which a major character’s recollections are foundational to things, I was pleased with Morton simply for not turning Grace into some strange figure who just happens to think like a clairvoyant deity. Does that sort of thing annoy anyone else? I think that, much of the time, we just accept it without thinking, and I’m glad to say it is absent here.
For me, if anything, an abundance of minor characters proved a bit confusing and distracting at times. But all of them had important enough roles in the plot that had Morton made things simpler by compressing some of them into single persons and tried to make the plot work that way, readers could have spotted her having done so a few novels away. In some cases, she would also have sacrificed historical accuracy.
Oh, and about historical accuracy-I was impressed with this novel nin that regard. When it comes to the period including and between the two world wars, it’s really rare for me to get through a historical novel without either 1. begging that whole issues, events, and snatches of dialogue be eliminated so that I can take the book seriously. 2. or, more often, wanting to acknowledge the author’s hard work and make sure that he or she knows that I learned something from all the era-specific annoyingly showy little tidbits at the center of entire, otherwise superfluous, scenes developed just to reveal a bit of show-offy historical knowledge. Instead, I would consider this a solid piece of historical fiction.
Despite what a few displeased reviewers said about the style seeming “forced” or “overdone,” I felt that the wqriting promised to be a bit weak in the early chapters but, far from making good on that promise, it was generally strong and, at times, (but not often enough for me to wonder exactly what kind of skill in diction 98-year-old Grace, an archaeologist, is suddenly exhibiting to dazzle Morton’s readership,, anyway) compelling.
There are just thee issues in the book that had an impact on me that might be ranked as “puzzling” or “disturbing.” So here goes:
1. Most of all, what is the intended to be the relationship between Grace and the reading audience?
2. At one point in the novel, Grace has an important conversation about a potential life choice with Alfred, and, at first, I thought that it was Grace’s decision that I didn’t find believable. But I now think it was the process of realization through which Grace, in talking to Alfred, became aware of the exact nature of the choice to be made. Do you feel that way?
3. There is a “game” played by the three Hartford children that is refererred to by them, and eventually by Grace, as “The Game.” For all practical purposes, though we never see the Hartford children play it, this “Game” ends up performing adequately significant and varied functions to earn its capitalization. But when she first mentions it, Grace initially starts to call it “The Game” and then decides on “the game” instead (in one of the moments that call attention to her relationship to the reading audience), noting that it hadn’t, at that time, become “The Game” in her mind. Did anyone else, based on this moment and given that what we do get to see about this “Game” excludes its being played, expect The Game to play a larger or, at least, different role from the one it ultimately performs?