Books: The House at Riverton

Kate Morton
Washington Square Press, 2009
468 pages
Trade Paperback

I picked this up as a curiosity more than a year ago, having found it in the remainders bin. I remember reading the back cover, peeking randomly at one or two pages of text, and deciding it might be worth the two dollars to bring it home. It has stayed on my shelf until about a week ago, when I became desperate for something to read, and nothing on my Kindle appealed to me. I pulled this one off the shelf—something I haven't read yet!—thinking only to have something to skim while sitting over my lunch. But then the book grabbed me and wouldn't let go.

The story is of Grace, nearly a century old in 1999. She once worked at the English estate known as Riverton, and a movie is being made about those days, particularly the tragic events that took place there in 1924. And of course this causes Grace to reminisce.

Morton, in the voice of Grace, has a lovely art with words, paints the most vivid and beautiful pictures. A reader can just as easily envision every scene of the book, and while most of the characters seem to fall toward stereotypes, Morton still manages to give them life and make them real, dimensional. Grace's own naïveté is almost beyond belief, but Morton only just manages to sell it, perhaps because Grace herself owns and admits it with the 20/20 hindsight of old age. Still, it does take her an astounding amount of time to come to the conclusion the readers (if they are astute) have reached within a handful of pages, pretty much from the moment Grace takes up working at Riverton at age fourteen.

It is not, however, a major plot point, this slow realization of Grace's. The true story is of the two Hartford sisters, Hannah and Emmeline. Grace goes from housemaid to attendant on the two girls and finally becomes Hannah's lady's maid, giving her a private view of the goings on within the household, and between the sisters in particular. In the end, that they should each fall in love with the same man (their dead brother's best friend! and a poet besides!) seems almost a given. But again, Morton's writing supersedes the tropes and clichés—even if the story culminates in a lakeside shooting on a summer's night at a Gatsby-like party. (And, no, it's not giving anything away to say so; that a tragedy, a shooting, at a party . . . These things are made clear early in the book. But Morton offers only the most tantalizing morsels about what actually happened until the very end.)

Fans of Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs may enjoy the setting, the world of wartime England as seen through the lenses of both the privileged and their servants. Romantics might enjoy Grace's affection for a fellow servant, and certainly the love triangle that surfaces toward the end of the book. For myself, I enjoyed all of it. Even the parts that I could guess at, even what I saw coming—Morton's prose rises above and makes even the obvious something to savor.

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