1999: Grace Bradley receives a letter from a film producer. Ursula is making a movie about the family at Riverton and the tragic suicide of poet Robbie Hunter during a party there in 1924. At 98, Grace is the only inmate of the house still alive, and she agrees to visit the set. Riverton has been faithfully re-created, but as Grace talks to Ursula she learns that the film’s version of events is hopelessly wrong. To say so would be to reveal a secret which Grace has been keeping from everyone for 75 years. Instead she tells her story into a series of tapes for her mystery-novelist grandson Marcus.
1914: Grace begins work as a housemaid at Riverton, and becomes entranced by the Hartford siblings and The Game of make-believe they play. In time she progresses to the post of lady’s maid to Hannah, the elder Hartford sister, and travels with her to London on her marriage. There Hannah meets her brother’s old friend Robbie, and encounter which triggers the slide of what remains of the family into disaster.
Obviously in 600 pages more happens that that, but I’m wary of giving anything away - or at least more than the author herself does. Knowing virtually from the start that the crux of the story was Robbie Hunter’s 1924 suicide took away some of the mystery; there was only why to speculate about, not what. And knowing that I had to get through ten years’ worth of Grace’s memories made the book hard to get into, as did Grace herself. It took me a while to warm up to her, even after she broke Riverton rules by smuggling in several books because she couldn’t live without Holmes and Watson. We’re told that she’s extraordinary, and indeed she acquired a doctorate in archaeology at a time when most women stayed home. Unfortunately, the book only shows her more ordinary youth and old age. (A novel about Grace's middle years - now that would be worth reading!)
What kept me going were the Hartfords. I shared Grace’s captivation, especially with Hannah, who was determined to remain single and independent and liked to take sharp jabs at her father’s horror of the slippery slope of female suffrage. That aspect of the book was particularly well done - the historical characters were all products of their time and held opinions accordingly. Soon I became more absorbed in the story and the glittering world of Riverton.
And then the main female characters underwent a collective drop in intelligence. Emmeline grew up into a spoilt, foolish girl with apparently no common sense. Hannah walked right into the machinations of her relatives, and was later willing to sacrifice her dreams for the very people who had crushed them in the first place. And Grace failed to notice things that were right under her nose (as did Hannah, and Robbie for that matter). When the IQ points went, so did my interest. It got so bad I actually turned to the end and began working backwards. I found it dull and increasingly frustrating.
The First World War was so far offstage it almost might not have happened. I was disappointed when Marcus started showing an interest in Ursula (a pet peeve of mine - can’t authors let their characters stay single? Just once?) And the boyfriend Grace acquired in her sixties was quoted as saying that it was a good thing she was an archaeologist, as the older he got the better she liked him. Reverse the gender of the pronouns and it’s an - uncredited - paraphrase of what Agatha Christie said of her second husband.
The thing that really annoyed me, though, was that it retrospectively marred my enjoyment of The Forgotten Garden. Like her second book, her first featured two time periods whose only common character was a woman who: Lived to well past 90; made an ill-judged marriage; had one child, a daughter, to whom she never felt any connection, and a grandchild she adored; and sought to leave information about her past for said grandchild, with the aim of helping them get over the sudden death of their spouse. That’s a fair bit of thematic recycling, and had I read the books in publication order I would not have given The Forgotten Garden the grade that I did. (Which raises the question: Edit the review in light of new information? Or leave it as is?)