If ever there was a
story that confirms Bob Dylan's
notion that, "the times, they are a-changin',"
it is The House at Riverton.
Just the life of protagonist Grace
Reeves alone stands as powerful
testament to that reality. Born at
the dawn of the 20th
Century and destined to become a
servant to the same British noble
family that her mother served, Grace
lived through two world wars,
outlived all of the family members
she waited on, became a single mom,
and graduated from college to become
a noted archeologist. Perhaps
Morton's greatest skill as a
first-time novelist is creating an
intensely rich character that could
adapt to the wild swings British
culture took in the last hundred
years. Yet Grace's evolution from
being a servant living in an
inexorably rigid class system with
its almost laughable moral standards
to a strong, independent woman of
the latter half of the 20th
Century is totally convincing. She
is the best part of Morton's novel.
Don't misunderstand. The story is a good one. When, at ninety-eight, Grace is approached by an American independent filmmaker to iterate memories of her years in service at the house at Riverton, her mind revisits the past -- her own and that of the Ashbury family, especially the dark secrets that all but destroyed them in rich high-def flashbacks. There is an air of real mystery surrounding the tragic post-World War I suicide of family friend and poet R.S. Hunter; an event witnessed by Lord Ashbury's two daughters, Hannah and Emmeline, both of whom happened to be in love with the young veteran. No one, except Grace, knows what really happened. And Grace, with the protective invisibility that concealed downstairs staff, was able to silently observe the family, including its triumphs, its tragedies, its warts and secrets. Secrets which she was expected, without question, to protect even at the expense of her own feelings. Thus, though the family is long gone and the era of upstairs/downstairs is ancient history, it is with great ambivalence that she gives herself permission to even think about the events surrounding the young man's death. Finally, perched on the brink of her own mortality, Grace decides to salve her conscience by dictating all she knows onto tapes she intends to give to her author grandson.
While other reviewers have faulted The House at Riverton for being slow moving I think it moves along at just the right pace. In order to get to know Grace in all her complexity the plot couldn't be rushed. Peering, as we do, into her memories gives us a thorough understanding of where she has been, how she has evolved and who she currently is. It also establishes motivation for the actions of the people she summons up from her past. In the end I was glad to have become acquainted with Grace Reeves and a little sad that I would never get the chance to meet her face-to-face.
First Impressions: 16 BookBrowse members reviewed this book, rating it an average of 4 out of 5 stars.
This review was originally published in May 2008, and has been updated for the March 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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