Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Review: The Distant Hours

Kate Morton

The Distant Hours

By Kate Morton
Atria Books, November 2010

About the Book

It starts with a letter, lost for half a century and unexpectedly delivered to Edie’s mother on a Sunday afternoon. The letter leads Edie to Milderhurst Castle, where the eccentric Blythe spinsters live and where, she discovers, her mother was billeted during World War II. The elder Blythe sisters are twins and have spent most of their lives caring for their younger sister, Juniper, who hasn’t been the same since her fiancé jilted her in 1941.

Inside the decaying castle, Edie searches for her mother’s past but soon learns there are other secrets hidden in its walls. The truth of what happened in “the distant hours” has been waiting a long time for someone to find it. In this enthralling romantic thriller, Morton pays homage to the classics of gothic fiction, spinning a rich and intricate web of mystery, suspense, and lost love.

My Review

A letter arrives on the doorstep of Edie’s mother, 50 years after it was sent. The letter deeply wounds her mother, Edie can tell, but her mother brushes it off and refuses to speak about it. Edie and her mother were never close, so she sets out to uncover the past her mother is so anxious to hide, hoping to learn more about her distant parent.

Edie learns from her aunt that her mother, Meredith, was an evacuee during WWII and was lodged with the three Blythe sisters in Milderhurst Castle, Kent, ancestral home of Raymond Blythe, author of a best-selling and most beloved literary classic The True Tale of the Mud Man. Meredith enters a world she never knew existed but one that suits her introverted, inquisitive self. Gladly dusting off her working-class London roots, she immerses herself in learning, reading, and writing, spreading her wings and imagining an entirely new life other than that of a hairdresser, the role her mother intends for her. But Meredith’s parents fear the influences of the aristocracy and order Meredith back home, tearing her away from Percy, Saffy, and especially her closest friend, Juniper. But will Meredith continue down the path the Blythes have shown her, or will she succumb to her parents’ plans and wishes?

In the present, Edie visits Milderhurst and sees the elderly sisters firsthand. The castle is now in disrepair, the sisters’ father, Raymond, long dead. Edie credits Raymond’s book with making her the reader and book editor she is today. The castle is filled with dark secrets, sad memories, and eccentric personalities. Hoping to bridge the gap between her and her mother, Edie digs through the family’s history, wondering why her mother is so reluctant to discuss her time at Milderhurst and how it shaped her life.

Ms. Morton excels at imagery, character development, and wrenching emotions. The prose is beautiful, thought-provoking, and always carefully wrought. Sometimes, however, that includes long, highly detailed detours that take you far afield from the main plot. Many times they serve to deepen the story and provide glimpses into clues that will be more fully revealed later, but at other times, especially toward the novel’s end, they can get tedious. Flashbacks, extraneous characters, and dreams tend to weigh down the narrative, particularly as you’re building up to the conclusion.

The other issue is that after such an incredibly long journey with these characters, we want the ending to be as impactful as the road we’ve taken to get there. In these books, that’s not always the case. To be fair, there are so many threads left hanging that not all can be made neat and tidy. Still, one of the biggest mysteries in this book was solved almost as an aside. Furthermore, even though we’ve come to rely on Edie as a bright, instinctive narrator, she takes someone’s almost flippant confession at face value, never imagining there might be other explanations.

If you read more than one of Kate Morton’s books, you discover a recurring theme: an ancestral home, family secrets, war time, a novelist, mental illness, and a modern-day woman relentlessly seeking out the truths of the past. That’s not to say the stories aren’t entertaining and engaging; they certainly are. It’s just that you’ll get a very keen sense of déjà vu that only fuels one’s ability to guess the deep, dark secret well before the heroine does, since you already have a sense for how Ms. Morton’s tales are constructed.

The tale itself is splendid—rich in description, emotion, and detail. The story from many perspectives is masterful. This is especially true if you listen to the Audible version, where narrator Caroline Lee, with her lilting Aussie accent, will help you while away the hours.

If you need an escape, Ms. Morton’s books surely provide them and gorgeously depicted ones at that. But don’t be surprised if you get a feeling of “I already know this story” when you reach for another.

Rebecca Henderson Palmer

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