The Clockmaker's Daughter by Kate Morton: A review

Kate Morton's gothic tale of a haunted house encompasses over a hundred and fifty years of the house's history and a bewildering plethora of characters who have lived in it or whose lives have been touched by it.

It all kicks off in the summer of 1862 when a talented young artist named Edward Radcliffe travels with an entourage of friends in tow to a house called Birchwood Manor, located on the banks of the Upper Thames. The plan is that they will spend a relaxing month in the house, but before that month is over their best-laid plans have gone seriously awry. One woman has been shot dead, another one has disappeared, and a valuable family heirloom has gone missing. These events will haunt the next century and a half.

In the present day (2017) we meet Elodie, an archivist of the estate of a Victorian activist and reformer named James Stratton. We learn that Elodie is the daughter of a famous deceased cellist and that she is engaged to someone named Alastair whom we never actually meet but whom all evidence indicates is a controlling jerk.

One day at her work, Elodie discovers an old leather satchel that contains the sketchbook of the painter Edward Radcliffe. The book has a sketch of a house which is the spitting image of a house described to her by her mother (the now deceased cellist) in stories that she told her when Elodie was a child. There is also a sketch of a beautiful woman wearing a famed pendant known as the Radcliffe Blue. She is unsettled by these images and longs to see the house in the sketch.

She travels to Birchwood Manor where she hopes to solve a mystery about her mother's life...

Then the story veers away from Elodie and we learn more about Radcliffe and his model Lily and then all the other extensive cast of characters who have been a part of the house's history and by the time we return to Elodie a few hundred pages later (the book is 512 pages long) I had just about forgotten who she was.

The narrative continues on several parallel tracks and I found that very confusing. It didn't need to be that way, but there was no indication at each chapter's beginning as to whose story was being told. Thus, I would be reading along believing I was reading about one character when suddenly jolted to the awareness that it was someone else entirely. That annoyed me.

Moreover, new characters who proved to be central to the story continued to be introduced throughout the book. It was just too much. I think the book would have benefited from fewer characters and a tighter focus on the main story. None of the characters particularly excited my sympathy. Perhaps the titular character came closest, but the exposition of her tale was so interspersed and interrupted by all those other tales that I found it disconcerting.

All that being said, there is still much to like about the book. There is a rich amount of historical detail of the various periods that relate to the house's tale. Morton's prose is vividly descriptive and one can easily "see" the scene she is describing and feel the suspense that is evoked by events. But although the plot was interesting, I just couldn't find the characters all that engaging and I turned the last page with a sigh of relief.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Comments

  1. I am so relieved to know that this book is not perfect, in fact maybe not even great, and that I don't necessarily have to read it!

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    Replies
    1. I would not term it a "must read." I had heard mostly positive things about it and was excited to read it, but just found it a bit too loose and scattered for my taste.

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  2. That's exactly the same conclusion another blogger I follow arrived at. Too bad. It sounded like a good premise, but it seems that too many threads spoiled the development. I was starting to feel guilty of missing out on so many great books being released towards the end of the year. At least now I know this one is not one of them.

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    Replies
    1. The historical fiction aspects of it were what appealed to me, but she just tried to tell too many stories, in my opinion. The book would have benefited from a tighter focus.

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