The House at Riverton by Kate Morton
Summer 1924: On the eve of a glittering society party, by the lake of a grand English country house, a young poet takes his life. The only witnesses, sisters Hannah and Emmeline Hartford, will never speak to each other again.
Winter 1999: Grace Bradley, ninety-eight, one-time housemaid at Riverton Manor, is visited by a young director making a film about the poet's suicide. Ghosts awaken and old memories - long consigned to the dark reaches of Grace's mind - begin to sneak back through the cracks. A shocking secret threatens to emerge, something history has forgotten but Grace never could.
I completely underestimated this. Picking up a Richard and Judy Summer Read brings a dread of easy reading, shallow entertainment, and the standard boy meets girl fluff. Although it was definitely an easy read, it also gave me all of the things I love reading about; English manors, the relationships between upstairs and downstairs, the social expectations of the era, and best of all, a glimpse at the madness of the 1920s. With breezes of Downton Abbey and Atonement, I fell deeply into this story.
Grace has suppressed her memories of working at Riverton, and now lies in a home for the elderly. She's contacted by a film director who is creating a work based on the events at Riverton involving the suicide of a progressive poet. Grace is invited to visit the film set, and the shock of it brings her earlier life to the fore. We're then treated to the details of the family, their troubles, and the ultimate scandal that finally ripped the family apart.
Despite many reviews blasting Morton's narration, I enjoyed it immeasurably. The foreshadowing was rife, yet effective, and although many claim to have guessed the final twist, I was kept enthralled until the end. Grace's narration flitted from past to present rapidly, but I found that wonderfully believable as conversations and events triggered her memory into continuing Riverton's story. My one wish would have been to see Grace's transformation from servitude to independence, and her life after Riverton.
Morton's characters were wonderful, and the differences between the sisters were engrossing. I particularly loved Hannah, who was incredibly liberal before her time, desiring more than anything to see the world and experience its adventures. From reading many other books set in this era, many of the female characters only desire a husband. This made Hannah so refreshing for me, and made her real journey only more devastating. Emmeline was adored by me for different reasons; starting off dreaming of her debut and a wealthy husband, she is captured by the 20s and becomes a real party girl. Although the men flock to her, she has no real intentions with any of them, excepting the one she cannot have.
The lives of the sisters are described perfectly by Grace, and she weaves a realistic yet enchanting story of war, hierarchy, love, and friendship. The finale was beautiful, and I was pleased to see many loose ends tied up on Grace's deathbed. Her last visit to Riverton was poignant, and I shivered as she conjured up images of her old friends and colleagues.
A truly excellent debut novel, and an engrossing Gothic tragedy. Never again will I scoff at a Richard and Judy Summer Read.