Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Distant Hours

by Kate Morton, 2010

After reading the first few chapters, I found myself hoping that I would love this novel. The leading protagonist is a bookish young Englishwoman who tends to get lost while driving (like me) and who comments that it is so much easier to write well than to speak well (I can identify). During the story, she finds herself trying to unravel the past in order to understand her own mother’s youth. This past history is interwoven with the lives of the mysterious, spinster daughters of a famous author who inspired the protagonist’s love of reading. Did I mention that the events in question are centered around an eerie, ancient, English castle where the heroine’s mother was evacuated from London during World War II? In addition, the prose of the book itself is written in a leisurely, promising style. The text alternates between our bookish Englishwoman’s research efforts and a series of events from the past, as told from the perspectives of the different spinster sisters. In the end, we also find out about the young soldier who went missing during the War and how he came to do so.

However, the longer the book continued, the more I felt dissatisfied. Perhaps I am misunderstanding the author’s intentions, but it felt as if she was reaching for something that she did not quite pull off. The leisurely style began to feel too loosely woven, as if she should have sharpened her storytelling and made every detail count instead of throwing in extra ones. Her portraits of British aristocrats of the World War I and II generation didn’t quite ring true to me—the flavor was slightly off from what one finds in books written by authors (say, Julian Fellowes or Dorothy Sayers) who actually know/knew such people. The themes of secrets, family, love, and loyalty were interesting, but for me they did not achieve the level of “haunting and satisfying.” I think that this was because of the loose weave. I wanted the author to provide a little more direction to me as a reader. I felt that I should have had a clearer idea of how I was supposed to react to the climactic ending. SPOILER: much of this is because one character ends up killing herself and two people beloved to herself by burning down her home with them all inside. I find it hard to believe that a protective and loving person would do that to their nearest and dearest—surely there are less agonizing ways to die of murder/suicide than immolation? I am honestly not sure if the author intends me to recoil in horror at the idea that they all perished in terrible pain, or whether she expects me to believe that the two victims slept through it, and the uncertainty leaves me off-balance.

Some of the plot “surprises” also became rather obvious once I realized that the overall events, unlike the style and pace of the book, are reminiscent of certain stock BBC T.V. mysteries. All of this dissatisfaction was made worse by the fact that I expected the book to be better. It had promise! It had atmosphere! It had English people drinking tea and discussing literature! Perhaps it would go over better with other readers. I rather think that I may try one more book by the same author, just to see if it succeeds (with me) a bit better. 

The bottom line is that this novel is like a very, very long BBC T.V. mystery (not a bad designation for any book to receive, since the BBC usually does mysteries rather well).

Linking up to Housewifespice for What We're Reading Wednesday.


  1. This is Kezia:
    I'm glad you wrote this review. When I read this book during the summer I wanted someone with which to discuss it! I came away feeling exactly as you did. It lacked direction. I think you are right, if the author had had more direction and had tightened the screws here and there, it would have been much better. The setting and premise were promising but the length was unnecessary (especially since I am not a fast reader). The one part that I found interesting and surprising (SPOILER) is when you found out that the blood on Judith (? I don't recall her name) was from her assisting a woman in giving birth, not some violent outburst that she couldn't remember.
    I, too, would like to read another work from this author, but I don't feel I have the patience to get through one of the same length to find same disappointment.

    1. Your comment made me laugh, because the reference to tightening screws made me envision some kind of screwdriver image that I could put beside the pictures of books that I think ought to have been tighter!

  2. Oh, no! Really? Oh, goodness, I guess no book is without its flaws but I have to completely disagree. Yes, it is a dark book and she really takes her time building the characters. I suppose it can be considered too slow of a pace and too much detail, but I found she did an amazing job drawing all of her characters. For me, she made the story so real and vivid. As if I were right there watching and seeing every detail as a gaper in the novel. I think she does a fantastic job weaving together multiple storylines, adding in mystery and suspense, while unpacking the story for the reader. I found her plots complex and masterfully woven together. I absolutely LOVE multi-generational novels, I think that's what appeals to me most about Morton novels.

    I'm on my third, Morton novel and loving every minute.

    1. My problem comes down to my inability to process the ending-- not because I don't like dark books, but because I feel like I'm not sure how the author wants me to feel. DID THEY WAKE UP OR NOT???? I also wish that "the killer" hadn't been obvious to me-- or that I knew that the author wanted her to be obvious.

      I'll try out another one of hers, and try to love it. :-)

  3. Okay, I just started Morton's Forgotten Garden, and it is quite long. Should I bag it? Or not judge the Forgotten Garden by The Distant Hours issues?

    1. My facebook friends tell me that The Forgotten Garden is dark, but good-- one friend says it's better than The Distant Hours. I'm planning to read either that one or The House At Riverton (which apparently had the best reviews) before I give up on Morton. Let me know what you think of The Forgotten Garden, if you do finish!


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