We had our bookclub meeting this week, discussing Kate Morton’s The House at Riverton. Eight of us had read the book and with the help of the following questions (from this site) had a really good discussion. If you haven’t read the book and don’t want to know what happens, it might be best to avoid reading on!
The House at Riverton switches between scenes with the older Grace in the late 1990s and the younger Grace’s life around World War I. Do you think this was a good way for Morton to tell the story? What does this structure bring to the story that would be lacking in a linear telling? Or, do you think a linear structure would have been more appropriate?
We generally felt that it was a good way to tell the story. This method drew the plot out, it helped to build up the story and increase tension before the big reveal of the secrets at the end. We also thought that it helped to make you think more about that things that were hinted at, but not explained in detail. A linear structure would have meant that the older Grace’s life had less interest for the story; this way you get the idea of how much Riverton and the events of the main story mattered to her.
Why do you think Grace chose to tell her secret to Marcus?
Her grandson Marcus means more to Grace than her daughter; they have more of a connection. Grace wanted to tell someone her story as at 98 she is going to die soon. She may also be looking for redemption: by saving Marcus she could make up for not saving Hannah.
Why do you think Ruth seems ashamed of her mother’s years of service?
We didn’t think it was necessarily shame at her mother being in service so much as Ruth being general disagreeable and not getting on with her mother. They are totally different personalities and have never really had a connection. Ruth didn’t want the film to be made as it would bring up her mothers past and her grandmother being dismissed for being pregnant. Her reluctance might also be her way of showing her concern for Grace.
What is Grace’s attitude toward her position at Riverton?
From the way Grace tells the story she sees it as the defining time of her life. However as the book progresses you discover that she has had a successful career in the years after Riverton, which some of us thought was a very effective way of revealing her character and the importance of those early events. Grace left a great loyalty to Hannah, more so than her sister Emmeline; this could be due to Grace and Hannah being the same age and Emmeline being much younger. Grace can see the alternative life of hard work that her mother had to follow, so service seems an easier option, but also access to a family and a sense of belonging.
Why do you think Grace was so loyal to Hannah? Did you believe that she would choose service over Alfred?
Grace felt needed by Hannah, she talks about her wistfully even before she knew they were sisters. We were generally surprised that Grace chose service over Alfred, this seemed a little odd at the time, but made more sense in terms of the plot when they get together in the end. This was one place where some of us found the plot a bit forced though.
Do you think Teddy changed after he married Hannah? How was their marriage different than she expected?
We felt that we didn’t really know much about Teddy, but that he was probably always like that. He made empty promises to Hannah and led her to think she would have experienced more freedom than she did – although perhaps he meant them at the time. Hannah seemed to expect a lot more freedom by marrying Teddy.
Emmeline was probably the character that changed the most, as her jealousy of Hannah becomes increasingly evident as time goes on. We also see the greatest changes in her personality as she was so much younger in the early scenes, but she also seems to move the furthest from the family even though it is Hannah who is estranged from Riverton.
What do you think attracted Hannah to Robbie?
As a poet he was a romantic and damaged figure; he was also a link to her lost brother. Robbie was very different from her husband and didn’t conform to the social expectations Hannah found stifling. There was also the excitement of an affair and the romance of his having carried her ribbon since he and David went to war. We thought they were genuinely in love. Hannah had married as a route to freedom, and wanted to be her own woman. This hadn’t worked out as she thought; Robbie allowed her to have some control and excitement.
Do you think Hannah and Robbie’s relationship would have survived if Grace had not brought Emmeline to the lake?
The romance between Hannah and Robbie burnt really brightly and we all thought it would likely have burnt out. They wouldn’t have been able to maintain the same level of excitement, especially once they had run away and were living together with little money and no family. Hannah wouldn’t have been able to return to her family if it didn’t work out.
Was the ending believable?
Some questioned whether the ending needed to be believable.
We weren’t expecting it to be Hannah that shot Robbie. Would she have really given him up when she was ready to run away with him? Some of us talked about whether the reveal about Grace and the two notes was believable enough; others hadn’t liked the reveal about Ursula’s identity which seemed a bit far-fetched.
What did you think of the way the minor characters — Alfred, Ursula, Marcus — become connected to Grace’s story in the end?
We liked the minor characters and they way they are linked together – with the possible exception of Ursula’s final identity.
Did you learn anything new about World War I?
This depended on the prior knowledge of the reader, we didn’t think it as the most reliable source to learn about World War 1. However several of us said that they had learned more about life below stairs in this period, and also more about feelings towards soldiers (like Alfred’s white feather). However the war itself is glossed over quite quickly because it was such a painful episode for the family.
Rate The House at Riverton on a scale of 1 to 5.
Our average rating was 3 out of 5. Some of us didn’t really like it. I personally thought it was a poor imitation of Atonement by Ian McEwan, on the other hand Tina really loved it. We all thought it was easy to read and you wanted to know what happened. The reasons the book was liked included, the insight into life in service, the was Grace has her own voice and in the end you do find out more about her own life. The reasons for not liking it so much were they way it seemed rather forced in places and how Grace often seems to have nothing to say of her own, it is all focused on the lives of the sisters and not her own life, aspects of her life are glossed over if they don’t add to the sisters’ story. Others liked this aspect as it showed her devotion.
Would/have you read any more books by Kate Morton?
Tina and Zoe have each read another one of her books, the Forgotten Garden and The Distant Hours, and several others were interested in reading more.