Friday, December 10, 2010

A creepy English castle, what could go wrong?

Creepy English castles are always a great setting for a story, so I was excited to read The Distant Hours by Kate Morton.  While the events covered in the novel move back and forth in time between the 1940s and the 1990s, the creepy house, Milderhurst Castle, is featured prominently throughout.

The story concerns modern (well, 1992) woman Edie, who works for a small bookshop and has just broken up with her boyfriend and become homeless in the process.  She is staying with her kindly boss and trying to figure out how to break the news to her parents.  While visiting her parents one day, her mother receives a letter that had been sent in the 1940s, but for some reason was only just now delivered.  The sight of the handwriting on the letter has a profound effect on Edie's mother, and she eventually tells a story that she had not mentioned before.  During WWII, she was evacuated from London and sent to live in the countryside.  She ended up staying at Milderhurst Castle, home to writer Raymond Blythe and his 3 unmarried daughters.  She states that after she returned home, she had never been back to visit the castle nor the Blythe sisters, but the long-lost letter was from one of the sisters, Juniper.

Edie becomes very interested in Milderhurst Castle, both because of her mother's association with it, and the fact that it had been the home of Raymond Blythe, the author of one of her favorite books.  The book The True History of the Mud Man (Blythe's best-known work) is mentioned as a beloved children's classic, although everything mentioned about the book seems to indicate that it would be quite dark and scary, not the sort of thing that would appeal to children at all. 

Edie eventually visits the castle and meets the now elderly Blythe sisters, who still live there.  The two oldest sisters, Persephone and Seraphina, are twins (although nothing alike) and the youngest sister, Juniper, suffers from some sort of mental disorder that causes her to wander around the castle, lost and ghostlike, mumbling incoherently. I know this is supposed to be creepy and Gothic and all, but really could we have had some more believable names?

So anyway, the story begins to alternate between Edie in the present, who has been tapped to write a biography of Raymond Blythe (and therefore has access to the castle, his papers, and the sisters) and the 1940s, when events happened which caused Juniper to go all loopy.  The big mystery is what happened to Juniper's fiance.  She was kept virtually as a prisoner in the castle by her father, who felt that her "talent" as a writer would be wasted if she were to marry and have children.  She escapes, however, and travels to London where she meets Thomas Cavill, a young teacher (the teacher of Edie's mother, the war refugee, in fact) and they fall in love.  They decide to marry, and Juniper decides to introduce her strange family to Thomas.  On the night she and Thomas go to the castle for the introductions, Thomas disappears, along with Juniper's sanity.  Oh, whatever could have happened???

Well, by the time the mysteries of the novel have been revealed (what happened to Thomas and what was in the long delayed letter), the reader is really ready for some big, earth-shaking, mind-blowing, wildly unexpected revelations.  The build-up to the ending is so agonizingly slow that you think, "It must be worth waiting for."  Therefore, it's a huge disappointment when the ending just sort of fizzles out.  Nothing that is revealed is all that shocking or even interesting.  There is a huge feeling of let-down when you realize you've slogged through nearly 700 pages (in my Advanced Reader's Copy) for . . . well, not much.  Very depressing.

The book had the elements to be really good, but it leaves the reader flat.  As I mentioned, I didn't read the final edition of the novel, so I can only hope it has been pared down somewhat.  Not much of interest was revealed, but it sure took a long time to get there.

Final Verdict for The Distant Hours Two Gherkins, for some creepy potential, but an ultimately disappointing story

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