A novel is an insight into an author’s world, or how they perceive it to be. No matter what the story, the intimacy of reading someone else’s words on a page gives you an understanding of them as a person. Most writers agree that they leave parts of themselves in each novel; your experiences are all you have to draw from after all, topped up with research.
But I’ve become stuck in a bit of a same-old author rut and didn’t know what to do. I felt I knew what was coming from the first chapter, and rarely was I wrong. I love a good story, but I wanted to shake it up a bit. And so I thought what better to way to encourage myself to read more widely than if I post about my reads and take inspiration from others – even if it is a book I would usually steer away from in the store.
So this is what lead me to The Lake House by Kate Morton.
The plot: a summary
The Lake House is a beautifully crafted book. It is the tale of a tragic incident that occurred in the early 30’s in Cornwall and which has haunted each of the family members involved for the following 70 years. It brings together a modern-day policewoman, Sadie, who in trying to escape from her own wrong-doing, visits her grandfather and stumbles across a majestic yet run-down house in the Cornish countryside. Her inquisitiveness leads her on a search for the truth in order to solve a crime that happened well before her own birth.
In the 30’s, the youngest member of the Edevane family was found missing. A toddler, last seen sleeping in his nursery whilst his parents hosted a party, was nowhere to be found. Presumed missing, taken or dead, each of Theo’s siblings held their own guilt and slice of knowledge as to what happened to him for the remainder of their lives.
The story primarily centres around Sadie and one of Theo’s siblings, Alice, who is now well into her 80s and a renowned writer herself. The novel jumps through time, from the 30’s to the present day with the reader gaining an understanding of the circumstances surrounding Theo’s disappearance from the perspectives of Alice, her mother and at one point her grandmother, with present-day Sadie tying it all together.
The switches between modern-day Sadie and the events of the 30’s helped me to gain an insight into not only the characters’ understanding of the circumstances surrounding the incident, but their own personal development. I found it far from confusing and more of a guide, helping me to come to my own conclusions with each plot twist, rather than being fed the story and feeling like an outsider, an observer.
The novel is largely the story of two crimes woven together within the Gothic mystery genre. Love is what holds this novel together and brings it to life; unbreakable family bonds showing the lengths a person will go to to protect their nearest and dearest.
Although the story centres around Sadie and Alice, it is Alice’s mother, Eleanor, who really stands out and makes this story real. In each of the recollections you see Eleanor in a different light and how she has changed as she gets older. As a young adult she feels stifled by her mother’s strict expectations of her and the need to please those around her. As she grows up, her love for her husband Anthony and the joy of motherhood is ever-present, but with it the understanding that she is now Mother, not just Eleanor. She had duties and responsibilities, but is she at risk of nearly becoming like the very thing she despised most: her own mother? Morton adeptly contrasts the adult Eleanor with the softer, girl-ish side to her and her desire to love and be loved. Eleanor is the rock of the family, the cord that binds them together and makes them a unit. Eleanor is, truly, the heroine of this novel.
Morton is able to portray Alice’s stubborn, selfish but other-worldliness as a teenager and show how she has matured into an adult, still carrying those traits but with a newfound understanding of life and the reason why people make certain decisions. She is set in her ways, focused and deliberate in each of her actions. Misunderstood as a teenager, perhaps, but her misunderstanding of the situation surrounding Theo’s disappearance is heartening; her friendship with the gardener confused with courtship and love, and her shame at being rejected resonating with her into later life.
Sadie is not a strong character, despite her central place in the novel. Her ‘wrong-doing’ is not such a life-changing event as the reader is initially lead to believe and she lacks in personality. Her sole purpose is to tell the story, rather than to seemingly be a part of it. I lacked any connection or empathy with Sadie, finding her rather bland. But perhaps that was the purpose. She was the narrator, and it could be quite easy for the reader to be side-tracked from the main story if Sadie also had her own life-story.
The most riveting aspect of the book by far was the author’s attention to detail, particularly when describing events and emotions from the 30’s. Alice’s observations about her siblings and mother; her button-down top and pearls and the lines around her eyes; the longing to be out by the lake, the dryness and grittiness of the summer heat bearing down on her really bring the characters to life and give them depth. Morton is able to give the reader a real flavour of what life was like for the middle classes back then, from fashion to behaviour and society’s staunch, conventional expectations.
But if you take a step back from The Lake House, cracks start to appear.
There are several incidents in this novel that are unnecessary and, frankly, unbelievable (alert: potential for spoilers!)
- The death of Eleanor’s mentor and family-friend. The reader is lead to believe that this could be suicide, but it is largely unexplored until the reader comes to Alice’s grandmother’s only recollection. The mentor had lived with the family for several decades and it seems entirely unbelievable that he would be murdered. Morton clearly chose to kill him off to try and divert the reader, but the red-herring was so glaringly obvious from the get-go it would have been disappointing if the mentor had had anything to do with Theo’s disappearance in the end.
- The ending. Whilst it was comforting for Theo to not only be found alive, but for the reader to know that Eleanor knew he was safe before her untimely death, it was just too twee for Theo to turn out to be Sadie’s grandfather. Of the hundreds and thousands of people who moved to and lived in London then, is it plausible that the two ‘investigators’, Sadie and Alice, would be linked biologically? I’d say not.
- Anthony’s shell-shock was well-researched by Morton, but introduced too late into the book and then dropped far too suddenly. I have read several fictional accounts about the effect of shell-shock on those who fought in the First World War (Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong being by far the most moving), and whilst Morton adequately explained the effects of it, it was a very shallow depiction and, I felt, tip-toed around the subject. Morton needed to explore it more in order for the reader to give it proper weight and consider whether it was viable for Anthony to have had involvement in Theo’s disappearance.
However, The Lake House is definitely one to read. It is a page-turner in its entirety and whilst I do have some criticisms of it, overall it is brilliantly executed and made me want to stay up late into the night to find out what was going to happen next. Many authors are able to depict a scene, an event, and add some emotion to it, but the human aspect of The Lake House is enthralling. Morton is excellent at portraying a character as a person; weaving in character traits, observations and personality into them so that they are all but real.
I had not come across Morton prior to The Lake House being recommended to me, but I will definitely be reading more of her works in the future.