I have only read one other Kate Morton novel before which also happened to be her first, The House at Riverton. While I enjoyed it at the time, it also seemed a bit deriviative, reminding me strongly of other gothic fiction, and even part of the twist was something I had seen recently before. As a result. I wasn't in a hurry to pick up any of her other novels, though I was curious to see how she had developed as a writer and often found myself lingering over her novels at bookstores but always put the novels back down, thinking of her as a back up. Similarly, once I bought this book, I still kept picking other novels in my pile first. It's not that I wasn't expecting a good read but it just never seemed like quite what I wanted.
Of course, it is gothic fiction so naturally there is an old ancestral home or castle, a family secret, the hints of a tragedy, and a love story gone wrong. She basically captures all the elements, and there is a twist when all the secrets are revealed - that's basically the genre; if there weren't a twist and decades old secrets, it wouldn't be gothic fiction. At the end, it is hard to feel anything but sad about some of the circumstances and not think "what a waste" regarding the characters' lives and outcomes. The novel starts out when Edith's mother, Meredith, receives a letter from over 50 years before that had been misdirected (or mislaid). Though she won't share its contents with her daughter, her reaction leaves an impression on Edie, and it starts her quest to learn more about her mother. Edie and Meredith do not have a very sharing relationship, and Edie has felt misunderstood for much of her life. Prior to this letter, she didn't even know that her mother had lived in a castle, Milderhurst, for over a year during WWII when parents from the cities evacuated their children to the country due to the bomb threat. The novel begins as a daughter's quest to know her mother, and when she finds herself in the proximity to Milderhurst after an out of town meeting, she takes a tour and meets the Blythe sisters, the older twins Percy (Persephone) and Saffy (Seraphina) and their younger sister, Juniper, the author of the letter that started the novel. Percy and Saffy are from the first marriage and about sixteen years older than their sister Juniper, who was once a promising writer but has gone mad because of a disappointment: a man she loved never showed up, leaving only a letter saying he had married someone else.
Edie, a book lover, is fascinated by the sisters, the castle, and the past, and begins to slowly dig to find out more about the disappointment that Juniper experienced - as her mother tells her, people don't go mad due to disappointment, and as much as Edie, lover of gothic fiction and romance, may like the idea of going mad due to lost love, she also soon admits that it is a bit fantastical. One of the first things Edie learns about Milderhurst is that the sisters' father was Raymond Blythe, author of The True History of the Mud Man, one of the first books to turn her into a reader and a childhood favorite. She mentions that Raymond Blythe's inspiration for the novel has never been determined so in addition to the mystery of the sisters and the missing lover, there is a bit of a literary mystery in the later half of the novel. She eventually gets an opportunity to return to the castle (she refers to it early on) to help satisfy some of her curiousity.
Kate Morton's characters are very well drawn, and having read novels like Atonement, I feared what Meredith's involvement could possibly be in this mystery. While the resolution was perhaps a bit by the numbers (at least parts of it), Morton's development towards the big reveal was superbly done, and I quite enjoyed exploring the different relationships, and watching as Edie began to gain new perspectives on her mother, and her mother's relationship with her family. Percy is also a character it is hard to get a handle on because there are some differences between her 1992, her 1941 and her 1939 character, though the reasons for this all become clear as the sections progress. The only character I occasionally got irritated with was Edie. While I could relate to her love of books, I got a little annoyed with her whining about how she never felt understood because she liked books, and no one else in her family did. She also mentions that her parents had a boy before her who died either when she was very young or before she was born - either way, she has no memory of him but talks about missing him and wondering what he would be like and what type of relationship they would have had, even using it to say she could understand another character's bond with her siblings. I'm sure this is because I can't quite relate - my mom and I have a relatively close relationship, and talk regularly (I mean, I was never in the habit of calling her and telling her about crushes, but I would discuss actual relationships; I have also never referred to my mom as my best friend) so it is hard for me to understand the distance between her and her mother sometimes. Additionally, I think I would have understood the sibling thing more if she had ever actually interacted with her brother, and it was an actual loss to her rather than just a question of what it would have been like, and I think this also goes back to the fact that I'm an only child and have always loved being an only child. I wasn't that kid that asked her parents for a sibling - I was the one that emphatically told them she didn't want one.
Still, while the novel may have occasionally dwelt more on Edie's present day life and her problems (no apartment, no boyfriend), the majority of the novel was well written and an enjoyable read. I liked most of the characters, and felt like the story was very well drawn; while I was expecting a big reveal at the end, I liked the way it built into the story, and added depth and a certain amount of irony to the events. It really was perfect for curling up on the couch with some hot chocolate while it was 0 degrees Fahrenheit - except for the fact that I have been having some serious issues lately with finding a brand of hot chocolate I actually really like.