Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Shifting Fog (The House at Riverton) by Kate Morton

A few weeks ago, I blogged about my intention to read The Shifting Fog over my birthday weekend, at the cottage. As is so typically me, I created in advance an idyllic situation where I would be reading lakeside while all around me cute Disney-like creatures would scamper and play. My children would enjoy each other's company and my husband would suspend 'FIN' night in honour of this special occasion. (Yes, some married couples keep things romantic with a weekly date night, but not us. We have FIN. Each Friday I have Financial Interrogation Night to look forward to. This wonderful evening begins with my husband updating our bank book and bringing it home. After dinner, we retire to the living room with our coffee. I sit facing him - this new rule was added after I would not make eye contact during the whole "cash back on the grocery receipt is not necessarily Judy's spending money, please look me in the eye fiasco" and he proceeds to grill me on all of the withdrawals from the past week. Whether or not they are my withdrawals or his, I am held entirely responsible. I am the impulsive one. I am supposed to keep receipts. Most weeks I lose it by the rapid fire round. I crack under the pressure.

"Yes, I had two five dollar Green Tea Latte's this week and and I attempted to slide the $50 of scrapbooking merchandise past you as feminine hygiene products. It's the new millenium Ebenezeer, get over yourself!" Finally we conclude with a little talk on the difference between "wants and needs" and I stare him directly in the eye, well as best I can as I simultaneously roll them into the back of my head. But, oh, the passion! Who needs a night out when I can remain in the comfort of my own home and learn all about modern day debtor's prison.)

Here is what I actually wrote in that blog post:

"My birthday is coming soon and with it my first trip to the cottage. The grounds will be green and the lake the stormy blue of springtime. Loons will proudly parade their new babies up and down the north and south shores and the temperature will be cool enough that I can wrap myself up in a quilt as I watch them glide majestically by. I may not be able to read on the dock as I generally love to, because the spring also is host to the birth of an endless variety of small biting, stinging insects (Always keep mouth closed in boat). For my birthday, it's usually the black flies, so I will wrap myself up in the screened room where I can read and watch the lake in all its splendor. My birthday present to me will be The Shifting Fog.*
*Note to Wayne: I know you sometimes read my blog. This is not to be taken literally. This is my "reading gift to me" and this statement is under poetic license and cannot be used against me to excuse gifts (like perhaps an ipad, flowers, chocolates..)."

Here is what transpired:

It was pouring rain when we finally arrived at the marina around 10pm on Friday night. Jill went to get the life jackets out of the boat and discovered little padlocks were securing all the compartments (Captain Safety in another moment of inspiration). So Captain Safety whispers the secret combination to open these treasure troves (no one but the Disney Creatures around for miles) and we set about to opening them. But it was so dark, and the baby padlocks were so tiny, that not one of us could read any of the numbers. Our boat is in a covered slip so we had some protection against the elements but I had found the one space where the beams were letting rain droplets the size of goose eggs bomb me from above. Now, all boats are required to have a light source aboard and I know that we keep a big flashlight on ours, but Captain Safety had secured this in the treasure trove along with our Canadian Tire life jackets and orange raincoats. So the kids came to the rescue by using the ambient light from their ipod's. We painstakingly began the process of spinning the tiny wheels of the lock (even worse than my big fingers texting on a blackberry - I look back at the text and think, where did all those extra letters and symbols come from?). We each took a turn spinning the wheels or holding the ipod close to the lock. Jill finally got one opened and we had life jackets. Captain Safety worked on the other and after persevering for at least 3 minutes, smashed open the ultra secure tiny baby padlock with his pinky finger. Aaaah, now we had raincoats. Well, we had two raincoats. So these went to our two children (keeping the peace, these teenagers were less than impressed with coming to the cottage for a quiet weekend in the first place). Yet, as I watched them put them on, there was a brief moment when I felt that just maybe I could devour my young for warmth. It passed, and I used some extra life jackets (the ones we have all abandoned because once we saw a dock spider on them and are now convinced that they nest in them kind of thing) to cover myself with. Captain Safety said "I'm good" and did not require any extra protection against the elements.

We decided that the rain was not going to let up and that we would just have to bear the ride the best we could. It slowed us down considerably. There was no moonlight to help guide us and very few cottagers on the lake with their properties lit up. We leisurely crawled up the lake while being pelted by icy torrents of rain. There were no loons calling or owls hooting, even our dog was too miserable to bark at everything that moves. When we reached our dock, we were soaked to the bone, tired, hungry and cold. Very, very cold.

The next morning I awoke to the pleasant sound of the continuous torrential rain. It was too cold to sit in the screened room. Besides, the view was still obscured by the heavy plastic sheets that wrap the room for the winter months. Hard to believe that Wayne had been up twice in April to open up and came back both times sunburned and informed me in his best Food Network voice, "Bring foods that can be cooked by crockpot because we don't want the cottage to get too hot." Yes, thank-you, Mr. Ramsay.

The morning rain became sleet, and then the sleet became snow. SNOW. Not little melting crystal like flakes, but the kind that actually coat the ground snowflakes. Accompanied by the kind of Ontario winds that even Laura Ingalls could appreciate. I felt like little Half-Pint when I made my way back from the outhouse. I wanted to tie a rope around my waist and call, "Pa, I've milked the cow, pull me back in from the barn!" However, Captain Safety draws a line between safety and comfort and wasn't willing to take drastic measures. He made one announcement to the family that the deck was very slippery due to the freezing rain that was now covered in snow which made it quite dangerous, and would we all be careful, etc. He then absolved himself from responsibility and went down to the dock to play with some 2x4's and noisy tools for the rest of the day in his T-shirt and shorts. The Canadian man in his element.

All Disney-like creatures on the lake were unavailable for comment, including the bugs. I turned on the oven and put lunch in to bake (I have been known to not take Captain Safety's well intended advice) and thought, I'm going to crawl back into bed and read The Shifting Fog. Nothing can spoil my birthday/Mother's Day weekend. Unless, of course, technology fails you.

My Sony e-reader has shorted out exactly twice in the year that I have had it. Both times at the cottage. Now, I purchased the ac adapter for this very reason and both times have left it at home. Sometimes, my personal lightbulb burns very dimly.

Needless to say, it felt like the longest build-up to read a book ever. I finally read it the following week and I enjoyed it very much, but not quite as much as The Forgotten Garden. And a large part of this is my own doing. It's all in the build-up. Because I read The Forgotten Garden first and adored it, I believed that this one would be even better. It may also have been the reading order. The Shifting Fog was Kate Morton's first novel and The Forgotten Garden her second. The stories share many similarities and I may have said the opposite had I read the books in that order. Nevertheless, a great read.

The Shifting Fog takes the reader back in time to Edwardian England to unfold the mystery of the death of a young poet on the grounds of Riverton Manor during a summer house party in 1924. The story is told in flashback by Grace Bradley, the 98 year old former maid at Riverton. Grace has kept her secret a lifetime and knows she is racing against time to tell it before it is too late. Her memories are spurred by the upcoming movie about the events of Robbie Hunter's death so many decades ago, and the visits she receives from the movie's director, Ursula.

The story begins with Grace's mother sending her to work in the big manor house that she once worked in. Young Grace quickly becomes mesmerized with the Hartfield family and in particular the siblings, Daniel, Hannah and Emmeline. She also is befriended by the household staff and learns about life in 'service'.

The siblings grow into adulthood during WWI and are introduced to the charming poet, Robbie Hunter, by their brother Daniel. Both sisters are attracted to him and the reader can infer that the secret that Grace has kept with her a lifetime has to do with his suicide and the fact that Grace and Emmeline never spoke again after that night.

Grace develops a close friendship with the footman, Alfred. He decides to go off to war and soon reveals that he was not meant for a life tending to the whims of the aristocracy. The war changes the decadence of the early 1900's and threatens the class structure of society. Grace must make a decision about her devotion to the Hartfield family and her independence.

And she must live with her decision for a lifetime.

Kate Morton's website has much to say about the contemporary gothic and the confessional narrative. It is an excellent site to visit to not only get a book summary but also to catch a glimpse of her writing process and gain some insight into how her stories germinate.

It will be very hard while I await the release of The Distant Hours, not to build-up this third Kate Morton novel in my mind.

Video clips of Kate Morton discussing The Shifting Fog/The House at Riverton and The Forgotten Garden.


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