When I was searching for my next novel to read, something of an escape was in order. I had just finished A Vintage Affair, so my head was still swimming with musings of another era. And while I do not mind reading singular novels by authors I’ve never heard of, I will admit I was looking for something that could easy turn into a guilty-pleasure, much like Sarah Addison Allen’s books became. So with a synopsis featuring a glittery estate and the lives of those who lived and worked there, I was more than curious to read Kate Morton’s debut novel, The House at Riverton.
Grace Reeves is simultaneously fourteen and ninety-eight years old–a long life of hard work, trials, and triumphs has altered what should be a peaceful transition to death into a revival of her darkest secrets and heaviest guilt. Her past is reawakened with the news of a feature film production about the family she spent so many of her years serving, the Hartfords. As she spends her days in a rest home, Grace’s mind transports her to Riverton, the grand estate of a wealthy family, with miles of rooms, thousands of books, and plenty of secrets.
When beginning her training at Riverton, Grace catches glimpses of the Hartford children: David, Hannah, and Emmeline. As house staff begins to change with the seasons and the war, Grace becomes more active in the trio’s lives, but has had an extreme interest in them and their “game” even before that. Because of their motherless home and their father’s preoccupation with motocars, David, Hannah, and Emmeline keep mostly to each other. Living at Riverton for the summers is like living in a bubble, and the “game” offers the three a chance to escape from their studies and obligations. But as the war comes closer to home, David threatens their secrecy and closeness by bringing a friend into the mix, a certain Robbie Hunter. It is only for a time before they both shipped off for war, but the sisters could feel a change…sadly a change that could never be reversed.
Grace shares some sentiment with the Hartford children, as she is the same age as Hannah. Her own home life is extremely unsatisfying, more than once being told she was a mistake by her work-horse mother and never becoming close with her. After a rather bold lie at Riverton, Grace enters the trust of Hannah. As they learn more about each other, a secret bond is forged. A bond that will one day destroy them both.
This novel spans a great deal of time obviously, and it was incredible the author Kate Morton had that much determination. From the First World War to the inventions of the nineties, her character Grace sees it all. I will say that the easiest portion for me to read was the last one hundred pages, but I will chalk that to my romantic side. While there were some shining moments of hope and love, The House at Riverton was not a hopeful book. The cynicism of an old woman (watching those around her watch her die) paired with England in the 1910s and 1920s was all too much for me by the time the novel ended. Although it paralleled my recent
obsession interest with Downton Abbey and reminded me of the movie Atonement, the climax of the fateful party (the party in which a famous poet kills himself on the estate) depressed me greatly. I literally put my nook down, walked into the bedroom, and bawled. Not exactly what I was expecting or wanting in a book.
With topics of love, duty, secrecy, and loyalty, The House of Riverton will certainly have me in deep thought for the remainder of the week, maybe more. I am one for happy endings, even hopeful endings, but I fear you will not find that here. As Hannah is told later in her life by a spiritualist, she is surrounded by death, and the novel wounded me with the truth in that statement. If you read this book, do not hold your breath for answers. They will not come until the very, very end. Also if you read this book and are prone to weeping, time it appropriately within the month (if you know what I mean). That was a major mistake of mine, finishing it when I did.
The House of Riverton is a hauntingly beautiful account of how lives intertwined in an age of house-maids, jazz, and shell shock. It is heartbreaking and captivating. And it does make me wonder (similar to the Titantic), what determines the age our souls return to in the end.