The House at Riverton by Kate Morton

The House at Riverton, Kate Morton

Atria Books, 480 pages

ISBN 1416550518

I felt like reading a very particular type of book this week.  I wanted something thick enough to lose myself in, something that created a world of beauty and mystery that I could step into and stay in for quite some time.  I was looking for a book, in other words, that offered a story steeped in a gothic atmosphere, but I wanted something contemporary rather than a classic.  Unable to find a new title to fit the bill, I decided to reread The House at Riverton by Kate Morton, a book I loved when it first came out but had not picked up again.

Grace Bradley is 98 years old, living her last days in a retirement home.  She has a pleasant, if slightly strained, relationship with her rather conventional daughter Ruth, and a longing for more frequent contact with her beloved grandson, Marcus.   One day, she receives a letter from a director who is making a film about the suicide of a poet at Riverton House.  The director has learned that Grace worked at Riverton House as a housemaid from the time of the First World War until the mid-1920s, and would like help establishing the proper setting.  Grace goes to Riverton House to chat with the director, and is mentally transported back to the last days of the Edwardian era, a time when the world was still divided into servants and gentry, but when everyone knew that the social order was about to fall.  The House at Riverton tells the story of that crumbling world, beginning when the grandson of Riverton invites a friend from school to stay for the Christmas holidays, and ending when the granddaughters, now grown, witness the friend’s death at a Riverton party, and never speak to each other again.  In between, The House at Riverton explores the possibilities and limitations offered to three young people at a time when the world they have known is slipping away.

The House at Riverton is an enormously engrossing story similar in subject to the tv miniseries Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey, but with the gothic overtones found in Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale.  It offers romance, mystery, and is just as satisfying to read the second time around.   But it’s not new, and for those of you who have already read this book, I’d welcome suggestions of other titles written in  a similar tone.

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