Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Review: The House at Riverton
The House at Riverton by Kate Morton
Reasons for reading: many bloggers have recommended it; it sounded like my type of book; my third sisters-oriented book for the Themed Reading Challenge
Description: "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."
First line: "Last November I had a nightmare."
My thoughts: I enjoyed this book. It reminded me in some ways of Water for Elephants - they both centre around an elderly person in a seniors' home who is remembering their past self and the secrets they kept back then. It also reminded me a lot of Upstairs, Downstairs and it turns out the author acknowledges the show at the end, so I guess it was a good thing that it did!
I really liked the premise of Grace being called in to check out the movie set and the memories flowing from that - it really added a contemporary element to a story set largely in the past. I felt Morton painted the house of Riverton very well - it's almost a character by itself and she's clearly done her research. I found myself wishing I could pay it a visit.
I chose this book for the Themed Reading Challenge because it's about sisters. Hannah and Emmeline are an interesting pair of sisters, because they end up (as they themselves note) basically living the life the other wanted - suffragette-wannabe Hannah married to a staid, boring man who wants to use her family heritage to advance his political career and seeming-homebody Emmeline becoming a silent film star and jazz baby. They are very close when they're young, but their different lifestyles move them apart, and then both sisters end up in love with the same man, which brings about a tragedy.
It's also the story of Grace, who observes them all for years - she serves them faithfully, envies them, wants to be like them, and eventually gains a connection with Hannah that turns out to be more than they realized. (I don't want to spoil it!) It was a very interesting look at a domestic servant at the turn of the century - Grace was constantly reminded and honestly felt she was privileged to serve the Hartfords and in fact sacrificed a great deal of her own life and happiness for them (though happily we find that she didn't give up everything and managed to have quite the life herself eventually). This is an alien idea today, but was obviously very much the way things were then, before the Wars came and started to change the fabric of life in England.
The verdict: A great read, especially for anyone interested in the period from the Edwardian era to the two World Wars.