When teenager Grace Reeves comes to Riverton House as the new housemaid in 1914, she is reminded often of how fortunate she is to work for such an excellent family. What Grace does not know when she arrives at Riverton is how caught up she will become in the lives and dramas of the Hartford family, particularly sisters Hannah and Emmeline. Over the years, Grace remains devoted to Hannah, who trusts and confides in her. Then, in 1924, life for the family is shattered when a handsome young poet shoots himself at a Riverton House summer party, and only Hannah, Emmeline, and Grace witness the tragedy.

Decades later, Grace is in her late nineties and living out her final days in an English nursing home. She has remained largely silent about her life in service and that terrible summer night for decades, but when a young director making a film about the poet’s death contacts her, memories come rushing back. Finally, as she nears death, Grace confronts the secrets of the Hartford family that have haunted her for a lifetime.

The House at Riverton is almost as addictive as Downton Abbey and a must-read for fans of the acclaimed British series. While the characters are all fairly conventional for a novel like this, they are still interesting and have complicated relationships with one another. It’s a suspenseful read with more than a few surprises, and Kate Morton is subtle enough to plant certain ideas in the reader’s mind without making the book too predictable. The housing and fashion details of the early 20th century are rich and a lot of fun, but they never overwhelm the novel. The focus is very definitely on the characters and the events that shape them.

This is mostly a light, escapist read, and the drama and suspense are what will catch your interest and keep you reading. However, The House at Riverton does shed some light on issues that are explored more deeply in some other works about the era. World War I is featured prominently, with soldiers’ “shell shock” (better known today as post-traumatic stress disorder) coming to the fore through the character of Alfred, a footman at Riverton House. One thing that becomes very clear in the novel, much as it does in Downton Abbey, is how exacting the standards of those in service could be. Servants, especially those of high rank and considerable experience, were sometimes just as pretentious as their employers, if not more so. Disdainful comments about other servants and even an employer’s family and associates were quite common, albeit risky.

When it comes to life in service, though, the book has the most to say about the devotion many servants felt toward their employers and the challenges that loyalty presented. Grace is so loyal to Hannah that she feels a familial obligation toward her, and it becomes impossible for Grace to imagine leaving her position even when it is perhaps no longer the right place for her to be. Hannah’s troubles and secrets become Grace’s own, and they haunt the former housemaid for the rest of her life. While Grace is both thrilled and honored by Hannah’s trust in her, their closeness doesn’t change the reality of the huge class difference between them. Hannah does seem to care sincerely about Grace, but she also always has the upper hand in their relationship, and there is little Grace can do if her employer becomes angry and no longer wishes to trust or be kind to her.  This highlights something discussed in other books, TV shows, and movies about life in service: no matter how dedicated and close servants became to their employers, there was always going to be a distance between them. While it was understandable that servants would come to see employers as their own family (those who worked in service were prohibited, or at least strongly discouraged, from marrying and having children), such feelings could be very dangerous, both practically and emotionally. It’s hard not to wonder whether Grace could have saved herself much heartache and stress over the course of her life if she had been somewhat more detached from the Hartford sisters.

The House at Riverton offers a great escape into another era and offers plenty of insight into life upstairs and downstairs. If there’s a Downton Abbey shaped hole in your heart right now, this book will help fill it, though it may also make you all the more anxious for next season to hurry up and get to America already!

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