Rating: 5/5 stars
Length: 496 pages
I don’t remember how I picked up this book, but I’m glad I did. The House at Riverton is told through the eyes of 98-year-old Grace Bradley, looking back through her memories of being the house servant at Riverton Manor for the Ashbury family in 1914. The book covers the time when society changed from a Victorian perspective, where duty comes before everything else, to the roaring ’20s’ indulgence and excess.
19-year-old Grace enters the Manor grateful for having been given the honor to serve the family, but as she serves, she begins to learn what that means, including keeping the family’s secrets, working without complaints, and giving up independent thoughts. She sees, but not allowed to say; observes, but cannot judge. In this capacity, she is an honest chronicler of what happens with the Ashbury family. What society knows and what she knows differ, and she is bound by the code of servitude to never reveal. She carries their stories until her dying age, when she is forced to revisit the Manor by, but who else could it be, the media.
The media here isn’t portrayed negatively. A filmmaker came to research because she wants to find out the truth for a commemorative movie in-the-making that seeks to uncover Grace’s secrets. Can Grace let go of them after carrying them for so long? The world wants to know what happened to the Ashbury siblings, David, Hannah and Emmeline, especially to the sisters. They were close, up until a tragedy occurred at a society party in 1924, when a poet committed suicide and the sisters never spoke to each other again.
This book is great on multiple levels. First, I enjoyed the story immensely. Tightly plotted, I cared for all the characters, even though at times I was frustrated at them for being foolish. This is especially true of the three leads, Grace, Hannah and Emmeline. They were strongly written, each had their own personalities and drives, even though Grace’s was more muted due to her role. But that’s not the only reason why I cared. I cared because in their own ways, too, their stories were the real tragedies.
Hannah is older than Emmeline, willful and bookish, she has a great love for adventures. For her, life is something to be explored so naturally, she possesses a more independent character than Emmeline, who is more whimsical. Emmeline is the youngest of the siblings, and her zest lies with enjoying and participating at life. I say “at,” here, because Emmeline’s story does not take center stage as much as Hannah’s but I felt for her too. In my reading, I saw her as a girl who wanted to be included, who was too young to comprehend the nuances of events, so she embraced the pendulum swing to ’20s exuberance openly. She was a social heiress, probably the Paris Hilton of her day (minus the ditziness!) and though this wasn’t made clear, you can tell her desperation. She hid it well behind her partying, but it was there. I don’t know which one I sympathized with more, the thinker Hannah who is aware of her limitations, or the lost Emmeline, who couldn’t realize what it was that she was trying to hide from.
And then there is Grace. I ended up liking her best not just because she is the invisible maid, but because she symbolizes changes that can occur. Just as society gave way to understanding that life is also about what one wants (the “excess” of the ’20s is nothing more than a rebellion against the stiff upper lip of Victorian era: to do what one wants to do than what one has to), Grace is the springboard that drove that point across. After that party, she emerged as a character on her own, getting what she wants, accomplishing what she thought she couldn’t do, didn’t have the right to do, even, and living to the end having experienced both.
Second, I enjoyed the book’s themes, the questions it raises, and its eventual hopeful message. While the storyline borders on tragedy when it comes to the Ashbury siblings, the silver lining is Grace. But what does that mean? Does Morton want us to think about class divisions? What does it mean then that the aristocratic family crashed and the only one to rise was the maid? Or maybe she’s trying to show us that they are, after all, just like ordinary folks?
Does she want to approach it from a philosophical view? Should you do what you want, or what you have to? There is the obvious answer here, but what about Emmeline? She lived her life based on what she wanted and she still couldn’t do right. That raises other questions: does Morton want to imply that maybe life isn’t just about your choices, and that maybe it is tied to all the choices of everyone around you?
Lastly, what does Morton want to say about change, history and secrets in general? That they’re good and to be expected? That we must come to terms with our past to embrace the future? It’s telling that she uses the filmmaker to jump start the story. Filmmakers document, they try to remember for posterity’s sake. If the book was about change and rising from one’s past, then why bother going back? Is there some cathartic release from uncovering all, or is there some benefit to letting bygones be bygones?
I can’t recommend this book more. Yes, the story itself may not be a masterpiece, there are some flaws, but I choose to skip over them and focusing on the positives, because this book did make my mind wonder and I’m all the happier for it.