Review: The Secret Keeper, Kate Morton

So! Kate Morton! In the past I’ve had some feelings about the way Kate Morton does her plots and sentences. This has bothered me in different degrees for different books — The House at Riverton was close to pure joy (I was reading it on vacation) but did not stand up to rereads, and The Forgotten Garden bugged me with some heavy-handed plot devices. But The Secret Keeper is her fourth book, and some of the tics I didn’t love in the first two I’ve read are gone now, and overall it was a fun, engaging, non-annoying read.

As a teenager, Laurel witnessed a crime in her home, and she has tried her best to forget it. But now, fifty years and a full career as an actress later, Laurel’s mother Dorothy is close to death, and she feels that she must find out the truth behind what she saw before it’s too late. Since her mother is reluctant to talk about her past, Laurel begins to look into the days before her parents met. In alternating chapters, we see the early years of the vivacious Dorothy, from her childhood in Coventry to a job as a lady’s maid to a WVS worker in London. THERE ARE SECRETS.

What I liked: The plot was a lot of fun. Young Dorothy (Dolly, as she was then, aw) was entertainingly full of schemes for advancing her life to get what she wanted. I love a scheme. She has schemes for making friends and schemes for concealing her boyfriend from her man-hating old lady employer, and schemes generally for moving up in the world and finding a happy family. I was pleased every time the pov switched to Dolly so I could enjoy her scheming.

What I sometimes but not always liked: Laurel’s plotline. She didn’t have that much to do. I liked it the best when she was hanging out with Gerald and they were each doing their own line of research. When Laurel was on her own, I felt like she was adrift. She had feelings about her past and wanted to figure out how her delightful perfect mother (there was a lot of reiteration of this point, the delightful perfectness of her mother) could have had a shady mixed past. Which is fine, but it’s more fun when she has someone to talk to (Gerald) about the issues that are plaguing her.

What I didn’t care for: The modern-day characters were kinda boring. Laurel has three sisters in addition to the brother, and I’m still not sure what the point of them was. They never add anything to the research Laurel is doing, except to occasionally say a random thing in passing that helps Laurel to a realization about what went on in her mother’s past. You don’t get a good sense of what Dolly’s [whatever drastic action she took! I won’t spoil it for you] ultimately brought to her life, because the present-day family relationships are rarely given much attention.

If you’re in the mood for an engaging historical mystery with some fun-if-guessable twists and reversals of fortune, Kate Morton’s your girl.

I received this e-book for review through NetGalley.

Review: The Forgotten Garden, Kate Morton

Have y’all ever seen Wonderfalls? If you haven’t, you really should. It’s basically Dead Like Me with a better premise, a better ensemble cast (absolutely no disrespect meant to Mandy Patinkin, whom I adore — it’s the dynamics between the characters that are better, really), and a stronger sense of what kind of a show it is. Where Dead Like Me gets a bit too grim, and Pushing Daisies can be a little too sweet, Wonderfalls finds the perfect balance. Naturally it’s the one of the three that ran for the shortest time. Anyway, there is this scene in Wonderfalls where the popular girl from the protagonist’s high school is talking about her husband.

Popular girl: I mean, he’s great if I was going to make a list of what I wanted in a husband. Which I did actually. Well, Robert is that list.
Random dude who’s in love with her: He’s the man of your dreams.
Popular girl: He’s the man of my list.

Since I first watched Wonderfalls in 2006, I have had occasion to make reference to this moment on many, many occasions. Mexican food is the food of Legal Sister Anna Banana’s list. Social Sister is the girl of Captain Hammer’s list. (HA HA HA, just kidding, Social Sister! I am sure you are really the girl of his dreams!) And as it happens, Kate Morton is the author of my list. She has got dual timelines; family secrets that are slowly uncovered; Victorian England and Edwardian England and England between the wars; and, in the case of The Forgotten Garden, a cameo by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

But look, I just sailed and waded (respectively) through The Hand that First Held Mine and The Children’s Book, and although I was not entirely happy with either of them, Kate Morton’s writing and plotting simply don’t compare. (Writing and plotting in the case of O’Farrell; just writing with Byatt, sorry, Byatt, I thought Possession was brilliant though) About two-thirds of the way through The House at Riverton, which was a delightful guilty pleasure with enormous mugs of Costa coffee and chocolate twists, I started being deeply annoyed by Morton’s penchant for writing all-predicate sentences (“She paused. Angled the magnifying glass to face the sun. Caught abruptly on fire.”). Man doth not live by predicates alone. This has gotten better in The Forgotten Garden; nevertheless, every time she did it, I found it maddening out of all proportion to how terrible a flaw it really is.

Leaving out my passionate bias against disregard, for the sake of dramatic effect, of perfectly reasonable rules of writing in English (I have my eye on you, Cormac McCarthy), Kate Morton and I simply do not click. The way the characters react to the events of the book does not fall into line with my reaction to the same events, so I am always finding the characters melodramatic or weirdly apathetic. You know how with some authors, they can imbue an apparently tiny event with so much emotional depth that you ache for the characters? Kate Morton is, for me, the opposite of that. Massive events in her books, with severe repercussions all around, utterly fail to move me.

And the cameo by Frances Hodgson Burnett was hamfisted. She shows up and someone tells her about the hidden garden, and she has to go see it, of course, and when they explain it’s the particular garden of an invalid girl, she says something like “A garden that helps to cure a frail little girl! How fascinating!”

Yep. It’s the book of my list.

The House at Riverton, Kate Morton

I am not able to steer myself away from books that deal with the dying aristocracy in Britain before and during and after the World Wars.  Or just books set in Britain before and during and after the World Wars (recently before and recently after, obviously; otherwise that would comprehend the whole of British history).  I love them.  I love books set in Britain in this time period even more than I love books set in the Victorian times.  At least more reliably – there are some books with Victorian settings that are shocking tedious crap.

The House at Riverton is all about a woman called Grace who was a lady’s maid back in the day and is now in an old folks’ home talking to a film-maker about her history at Riverton; particularly, about the suicide of a young poet in front of the two Hartford sisters.  Hannah, the older girl, has yearned for freedom all her life, while Emmeline, the younger, wants to marry and settle down.

The House at Riverton isn’t the best book of its kind imaginable.  Although it’s clear that Hannah finds herself trapped, this book doesn’t do a fantastic job of creating sympathy for her.  Taken out of context, some of the things she does are really unsympathetic, but it would have been fine if we’d really had a vivid sense of the way she’s trapped by her times.  Not so much with that.  Sarah Waters does it more better in Fingersmith.  As well, some of the big reveals were predictable, and some of the plot devices strained credulity.

This is a guilty pleasure.  I devoured it at Costa, on the Tube, on benches on the South Bank, and in bed before I went to sleep.  Until about five-sixths of the way through, at which point, for some reason, the writing became madly choppy.  I couldn’t enjoy the book anymore!  Because the writing got so choppy!  It was all things like this:

She’d never felt such rushing freedom.  She turned her face towards the night sky; closed her eyes, felt the kiss of cold air on her warm lids, warm cheeks.  She opened them again, looked for Robbie as they went.  Longed to dance with him.  Be held by him.

Then he started to call out and she was worried someone on the embankment might hear.  Might come to their aid.  Might contact someone.  The police, or worse.

Seriously, there was so much of this, it was ridiculous.

That’s fine once or twice, but it was happening every second paragraph towards the end of the book.  I don’t know it suddenly got like this, when it wasn’t doing that for the majority of the book.  I didn’t like it.  This is why God made editors.  I know this book is long – did the writer and/or editor just get tired of making the effort as the book went on?  Seriously, the writing was way better in the beginning.

Anyway, I can definitely see this book progressing to the status of comfort book, and I look forward to reading her second book, The Forgotten Garden, assuming it ever, ever gets in at the library.

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