Kate Morton: The Distant Hours

by Rachel Baker on April 30, 2011

I just recently finished Kate Morton’s The Distant Hours.  Now, I must say, I would probably never have read this, based on my review of The House at Riverton and the subsequent comment on that review regarding The Forgotten Garden.  However, the book came into my hands along with a few others, and I figured I’d go ahead and read it.  I normally like to see how authors have grown, particularly when I read their first novel.

I read it slowly, only during the late evening hours – remembering all the extra characters of The House at Riverton and not wanting to miss anything in the hopes that everyone had a purpose.

To my happy surprise, all the characters are a part of the story. There aren’t many characters in this story, and each one of them has a reason for being there.  Its clear who the main characters are and who the bit players in the story are. The Distant Hours shows improvement in interpersonal relationships between characters.

I enjoyed the book for the most part.  Though having not read The Forgotten Garden, I think I can say, Morton has the ability to visualize a good story.  The idea for both The House at Riverton and The Distant Hours were both very intriguing and engaging.  However, it seems she gets tired in the last 1/3 of both of these books.  In The Distant Hours, I feel like she rushed the most important parts of the story, wrapping it all up with a frazzled little scrap of twine and presented it to the public.  Morton’s forte, I believe is, building a story, not ending it.  I think if she used less words in the first half, her endings would be much more powerful.

Frankly, the disappointment with her books, for me at least, is the lackluster endings.  In The Distant Hours, from the first time we meet the sisters, I pretty much suspected which one was going to commit the reason for secrecy; from the first time we heard about the twins mother dying in a fire and then knowing father had lost his mind with guilt, I knew he probably actually killed mother; and one could figure out that the mud man probably had his roots in this event whatever it was.

Unlike The House at Riverton, the clues were not as blatant; but that’s why I figured it out.  It was almost like the author tried too hard to keep the clues hidden, thusly making it obvious that the sweet little old lady, not the tough old broad nor the old lady that had lost all her faculties, was the one who committed some heinous crime.  There’s a balance that should be met between putting all the clues out there and trying to hide them too much.  Great mysteries have this balance; and in my humble opinion,  The Distant Hours seems more of a mystery than just your basic gothic novel.

I didn’t understand the need to vaguely flesh out the lost loves of all three women.  Frankly, I don’t think Saffy’s or Percy’s (the elderly twins) were relevant to the story at all.  If Saffy or Percy had killed June’s fiance intentionally, then the fact they’d loved and lost because of the ties to the house would have been relevant.  However, his death was not a cold-blooded affair, so their lost loves were by means a way of moving the story forward. The same sort of holds true with all the resentment the twins showed towards each other. While I completely recognized where the bitterness came from, the inclusion of it did nothing for the book; and it was almost too much.  I was sucked into the story enough to realize they’d lived together their whole lives and they couldn’t feasibly leave the house; but when it came right down to it, it was only June who couldn’t marry; the other two could have ventured out in the world.  Saffy was the maternal figure, Percy was the paternal figure – I get that; but it was their choices to stay – nothing in the story was presented that required them to stay. Maybe I it missed it; or it was just implied.

Now, one could argue, Saffy stayed to take care of June and Percy stayed to take care of the house.  Right, got that.  But what really was the cause of June’s mental demise?  It wasn’t that she was stood up and didn’t know what happened.  She knew exactly where her fiance was buried – we were told so when Edie stayed overnight at the castle.  Therefore, she knew what happened to him.  She wasn’t pining for his return.  And, my understanding of her father’s will was simply – she couldn’t get married or the house would be donated. Not one of the sisters had to stay there and never leave.

It all just seemed a bit inconsistent to me.  I can only guess the sisters had told June she’d killed her fiance during the black out she’d had on her way home, which in my opinion, was an awful thing for them to let her believe, especially when they knew that wasn’t the case.  Percy actually is the one to blame on that one, as I’m not clear if Saffy ever knew she was the one. Again though, I’m not really sure how that all ties in, other than maybe Percy did it so none of them would ever venture out into the world with the possibility of losing her beloved castle.  This really wasn’t made clear and maybe it wasn’t supposed to have been; but then it caused the ending to appear even more inconsistent.  Why destroy something you loved so greatly, after you’d designed some elaborate plan to keep an innocent, though heinous, event a secret, so as never to lose the one thing you loved?

For the length of the novel, a great deal was left to be desired.  I think once an author gets past the 300 page mark in the manuscript, they should go all out with beefing out the details. If you meticulously, slowly build your story, you should never rush your ending. There was great build up to the ending, and in less than 50 pages, the whole story didn’t matter in the very least.   I am not certain why a big fire was needed to end the lives of three women who had no children, particularly when Edie couldn’t tell the story she’d been told anyway. She could have handled the death of June’s fiance discreetly with his brother and been done with it and waited to tell someone of the twin’s mom’s dead lover when they died. Frankly, the fire was my clue that the author was tired. It doesn’t get much more final than a destructive fire. Big fire…characters the story centers around dead…book done.  A little too cliche, if you ask me.

Once again, I was left disappointed by a Kate Morton book. The unfortunate part of this is she has GREAT story ideas; I just wish she’d tell the story better.

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