The House at Riverton by Kate Morton

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The House at Riverton by Kate Morton

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Category: Women's Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A compelling love story, a social history and a gripping mystery all rolled into one superbly-researched and well-written book. If you read one book this summer this should probably be it. Highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: June 2007
Publisher: Pan Books
ISBN: 978-0330448444

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In the summer of 1924, on the eve of a society party, there is the sound of a gun being fired and Robbie Hunter, promising poet, has committed suicide. There are only two witnesses to what happened - the Hartford sisters, Hannah and Emmeline. Rumour had it that Hunter was engaged to one sister but the lover of the other. After the tragedy the sisters never spoke to each other again.

In the winter of 1999 Grace Bradley is approached by a film director who wants to make a film about what happened at Riverton Manor some seventy five years before. Grace had been a housemaid at Riverton and at ninety eight is probably the only person still alive who knew what the house was like at that time. She's taken to see the film set and memories she's tried to forget come flooding back. The story demands to be told, whether Grace likes it or not.

When I was fifty or sixty pages in to this book someone asked me if I was enjoying it. 'It's interesting' I said 'but a little slow to get going'. Grace went to Riverton just before the outbreak of the First World War and there, in exquisite detail, is the picture of the house, of society, of a country on the eve of war and monumental change. Men from Riverton will die in the war but this will bring Grace into contact with the Hartfords. Socially they're from very different backgrounds but they're much of an age and Grace feel herself drawn to them and particularly to Hannah, the elder sister.

By the time I was a hundred pages into the book I couldn't put it down. Grace's memories are slowly drawn out - against her will - and told in a series of flashbacks. Flashbacks are not easy for an author to do well. All too often they muddle and confuse, but here they're handled with astonishing assurance particularly for a debut novel. I never had any doubts about timescale and the two voices of Grace are quite distinct - the nervous housemaid, reluctant to leave her ailing mother, uncertain of her own background and the ageing woman who has led a full life but held on to her secrets.

Few novels are as well-researched as The House at Riverton. There's a bibliography that would put many a non-fiction book to shame and in consequence the book has a rich background. There's a feeling that the author knew more, far more than she has mentioned - unlike many period novels where it's difficult to escape the conclusion that every known fact has been mined for all it's worth. It's wide ranging too - I shivered with the house maids through the winter nights and drooled at the food the cooks produced in the big houses. I felt the yawning gulf between the different levels of society. Splendid stuff.

It's a rich cast of characters too and even those who play a relatively small part are real, believable people. It's the plot though that really makes this story so compelling. Now, Robbie Hunter's death doesn't happen until quite late in the story and frankly, towards the end I couldn't turn the pages quickly enough. What happened was so completely right that it couldn't have happened any other way - and yet I never saw it coming. Everything was explained. It's a compelling love-story, a social history and a gripping mystery all in the one book.

The test of a good book is whether or not you would want to read it again. The shock of the ending would not be there, but tonight I picked the book up to check a name. Half an hour later I had to force myself to put it down. Little loose ends were tying themselves up, small points explained themselves. I'd say that not only could the book be reread, but that it might well benefit from a second reading.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending this book to The Bookbag.

If you've enjoyed this book then you might also like The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield which has an ending to take your breath away or Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum. We also liked The Last Debutante by Lesley Lokko.

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Buy The House at Riverton by Kate Morton at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The House at Riverton by Kate Morton at


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Pipa said:

Having read your review, I have to say that I am entirely in agreement. This book is very slow for the first 60 or so pages, but I cannot now put it down. I havent finished it yet but I am enjoying every page that I am reading. Every spare moment I can find is now being spent reading this excellent story. I decided to buy a book to read because of the awful weather we are experiencing and am so pleased that I did so. It is a book that deserves all of the praises it has amassed so far and I look forward to Emailing you again when I have reached the final page.