Saturday, 15 January 2011

The House at Riverton

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton. This book is a charity shop find that has been lurking in the TBR pile for ages. I have been plodding through it over the last couple of weeks, only persevering because I dislike putting in this much effort and not getting to find out what happens in the end. It seems to be a much admired books and I have read reviews of it several times, which would have been why I picked it up at all. At nearly 600 pages I had some expectations, but I confess that I was not that impressed and it will not be earning a permanent place on the shelves.

The story concerns the memories of Grace, a former housemaid at Riverton and focusses on a period from 1914 when she arrives as a young girl to 1924 when a suicide at the house has severe repercussions and changes everything. We follow the fortunes of the family through the First World War, to the daughter, Hannah's marriage when Grace accompanies her as her lady's maid to her new life in London. Events and circumstances bring them back to the house in 1924 and the fateful day in question. Prompted into reminiscing by the arrival of a film director who is making a film of the 'romantic' tale of the tragic death of a young poet, the elderly Grace starts recording her story for her grandson, who has disappeared, mourning the loss of his wife. I'll resist the temptation to give too much away, though much of it felt a little predictable, the twist in the tale at the end was not totally convincing as I was not sure that people would necessarily have behaved the way they did.

(Some minor spoiling ahead) Ok, for a start it was far too long and waffly. I was bored much of the way waiting for something more momentous to happen. It is full of all these little devices and incidents that, looking back, are supposed to explain why certain things happened. By the shakespearian definition it is not a tragedy, merely tragic; the events are bought about by force of circumstance not a sympathetic but deeply flawed character. Grace is the only person we get to know, since it is her thoughts we hear and her decisions we understand. She is the product of her era, her class and her upbringing. After lying and covering for the children who are hiding from their tutor, and then sharing a secret with her she creates in her own head some romantic notion of a 'bond' between herself and Hannah, a feeling enhanced by her 'discovery' (how predictable was that) that she is her illegitimate half-sister. She sacrifices her own happiness after having promised enduring loyalty to this rather spoilt, self-centred young woman, who of course has no notion of her as anything other than a servant, and who plans to abandon her anyway. To be fair it is well researched and the period detailing is lovely. The social expectations on women of both upper and lower classes is highlighted by passing references to the burgeoning feminist ideas, though you can see that very little has changed in the 100 years since Jane Austen was writing Pride and Prejudice. There is education for upper class women but still they are expected to marry and then do nothing but take tea with each other. Working class women just do all the work (plus ca change ...). There was far too much description of upper class society and the servants all knowing their place and getting on with everything, all so very grateful for the opportunity. The political attitudes expressed by the men in the family, and even by the supposedly more progressive american family Hannah marries in to are very much of the period too. You really can see where socialism sprang from.

I sometimes think I like books where I can identify strongly with a character, now this one had all that potential, Grace was just the kind of person I would go for, but she was such a doormat, far too self-sacrificing, so little real oomph, and the misplaced loyalty was just frustrating. On the other hand there was no-one in 'The body' to identify with but I just loved it, so there's a theory out the window. So, not a good sign when you are just glad to get to the end of a book.
Am still plodding through War and Peace. Laughing over it at breakfast this morning Dunk said he wasn't sure it was supposed to be funny; Prince Vassili got so bored waiting for Pierre to propose to Helene (his daughter) that he just walks in and pretends that he has and congratulates them and announces it to everyone, but mostly it has been dull upper class twits having parties too, but I am determined to stick it out.

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