Friday, February 15, 2013

The House at Riverton

Lately I've been entertaining the thought of writing a novel. Not a grand adventure or a whodunit -- nothing that is action driven -- and not a historical novel that require great attention to detail in areas where I have little expertise, but a story about daily life, friendship, aging and self-discovery. So far I've got some characters in mind and a bit of a plot, not much, but I thought I might be up to the challenge one of these days. But that notion was completely dashed by the time I had finished the first chapter of Kate Morton's House at Riverton.

She begins: "Last November I had a nightmare." Ninety-eight-year-old Grace Reeves tells the dream and talks about the letters that have come, dredging up old memories that she has spent a lifetime trying to forget. In the process she mentions people as if the reader already knew them -- Hannah, Ursula, Sylvia, Marcus, Ruth, Robbie, Emmeline -- people who have no faces, no personalities to the reader but surely do to Grace. And by the end of page five, I was a goner. Morton had succeeded in drawing me into one of the most intriguing stories I have ever read, just as she has captured the attention of thousands of other readers.

And that's when I knew that I'll need to do a lot more work than just have some characters and a bit of a plot if I'm ever going to write a novel. For not only is The House at Riverton a complex tale of intrigue, relationships and secrets, a sad and tragic story, it is also masterfully told.

When we first meet Grace she is living in a nursing home. She is talking to the reader, but much of the story is told to her grandson, Marcus, through cassette tape. The story takes place in the home of Lord Ashbury and Lady Violet, where Grace went into service at the age of 14. Flawlessly, Morton moves the reader back and forth from the early 1900s to 1998, unfolds the characters with great care, dropping a hint now and then of what their fate will one day be, but never giving away anyone's secrets.

As a matter of fact, the book revolves around secrets. Were I to go back through the book to count the secrets I would see how cleverly the author thought through her story in advance, working out the details and figuring just the right moment to weave them into the tale.

I may have mentioned before the father and daughter who have both written novels. He talked of the difference in their styles. The daughter worked furiously to create her characters and plot her story in advance, so when it was time to write the novel, she had no surprises. The hard work was already done and she simply told the story. The father, on the other hand, started out with his characters and a basic plot line then started to write, and in the writing got to know his characters and learn what they were up to. Well, The House at Riverton was a meticulously developed story in the author's mind long before she typed a word, I'm sure.

We say that the opening line of a story is the most important, and surely it is, because it is designed to capture the reader's attention. But the ending of a story is also important. I am thinking about two other  authors I have read. They both tell a delightful story, full of fun and adventure, but the endings of one author are weak and leave unanswered questions in my mind. The other author seems not to notice when her story is finished. In other words, a clear ending is as important as a strong beginning.

Kate Morton held my attention for 468 pages, and as I read the final page many aspects of the story finally came together. I held my breath, my eyes wide, as the significance of the details on that last page settled over me.

This is not a book you can just walk away from when you are finished. As a matter of fact, my last hour of reading was done in the parking lot of the library and I fully intended to return it once I was done. But I couldn't bring myself to take the book into the library after all. I started my car and drove home, where I could have The House at Riverton with me for just a few more days.


Joan Husby said...

You can do it, Ginger. This book sounds like a great model for any writer. I'm sending a link to your blog to my critiquers...they'll love your review.

Ginger Kauffman said...

Thanks, Joan. You are such a encourager.
It really is a wonderful book -- Kate Morton's first one at that! I haven't given up my dream entirely, but reading this reminded me that writing a book is no simple task. I've got a lot of work cut out for me before I get started.