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Mystery and More: Kate Morton’s Carefully Structured The Lake House Has Broad Appeal

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Photo by Gillian van Niekerk

In The Lake House (Atria. Oct. 2015), plucky 14-year-old Alice Edevane’s little brother, Theo, disappears during a lavish party at the family’s sprawling estate in Cornwall, and the case remains unsolved for 60 years. Then Det. Sadie Sparrow stumbles upon the abandoned estate and seeks to unlock its secrets by approaching Alice, now a grande dame author. History, mystery, a split yet deftly interlocking time frame, the complexities of family, the sweep of England’s grand country homes—of course it’s a Kate Morton novel. And once again she delivers the satisfactions of all her best sellers since debuting with The House at Riverton.

lakehouse728152The brilliant Chinese-puzzle-box construction of Morton’s novels is hardly accidental, even for someone who loved math at school. As the author explained in a phone interview, “I enjoy structure as much as character, setting, and story line. It’s part of the reward of writing.” In fact, when she finds herself struggling with a new work—when “I can tell that it’s too thin, too obvious, too flat and will read that way unless I make better”—Morton starts tearing apart the text and inserting not colorful detail or newly minted characters but, as she says, “more architecture or framework. That’s where you hang your story.”

If for Morton structure is storytelling, the way events unfold and secrets get revealed, what she hangs on her structural framework is rich and flowing fabric. Partly it’s because she writes such impassioned characters. For instance, Eleanor, Alice’s mother and the book’s profoundly affecting moral center, makes an astonishing sacrifice for those she loves, something neither her family nor her readers discover until the end.

Sadie, too, is admirably fierce in her convictions, having been forced into a leave from the London police force for refusing to accept a case solution that made no sense to her. That the case involves a missing child, echoing the vanished Theo, and that Sadie must decide whether to approach the daughter she relinquished as a teenager even as Alice must decide whether to confront her family’s past show how Morton wraps structure in thickening plot detail, allowing for parallels that don’t seem forced.

Narrative rightness

The conclusion to the book’s various dilemmas, which even Morton didn’t see coming until she was about two-thirds of the way through, feels at once satisfying, surprising, and inevitable. Morton’s steel-ribbed structure guarantees that, though she’s not in fact a rigid planner. “Sometimes I know the ending and need an ending to write toward, like a finish line, but I always allow for it to change,” she explains. Sometimes, too, an idea sits for a while until it’s ready. For instance, Morton was intrigued by a news story about an abandoned apartment in Paris, but it was not until she linked it to the idea of a missing child that The Lake House began to emerge.

To show how a narrative coalesces, Morton steals an idea from Eleanor, who was “absolutely a joy to write.” Eleanor, she explains, “has this idea that there is rightness, and a book must have narrative rightness. You can have really sad stories, but readers must feel at the end that the right thing has happened.” In The Lake House, Alice finally learns the momentous rightness of her mother’s sacrifice, and the reader is left humbled and wondering, What would I have done? Thus does a book that’s essentially a terrific untangling of a mystery also carry moral import.

Clearly, family figures largely in The Lake House, as in all of Morton’s novels. Why family instead of, say, feuding neighbors? “Families have infinite appeal,” retorts Morton. “They are so complicated and yet so central and necessary to the lives we lead as social beings.” The actions of one generation can spill over to the next, and Sadie reminds us that “the past [has] a way of reaching over the years to catch [us].” That might sound ominous, but getting caught by the past is a good thing in ­Morton’s works. If nothing else, it yields cherished understanding.

Living history

Along with family, history knits itself into Morton’s generous narratives, giving them palpable dimension. “I love history,” she explains, “but more than that, I love living history, the parts still around us.” The Australian author is especially aware of the past’s ever-unfolding depths when visiting England, and she’s breathed in its literary legacy as well. “As a child, in a sort of cultural imperialism, I read a lot of books set in England,” she clarifies, “and going to England was like going through the wardrobe in the Narnia tales. It was magic!”

Morton considers her works mysteries first, and The Lake House is more obviously so than her previous books. Though she’s always had someone driving the investigation into past secrets, Sadie is her first real detective, even if she’s temporarily off the force because Morton felt she couldn’t write about police work in England. Still, it’s significant that Alice, an imperious and highly regarded writer of psychologically taut mysteries, recalls Ruth Rendell and P.D. James. “This character is wish fulfillment,” laughs Morton.

What, finally, does fiction mean to Morton? “The novel is such a broad church,” she responds, resisting easy definitions. “It can teach, it can open doors, it can be a page-turner. And sometimes it’s all of those things at once.” Certainly, that’s true of her own work. Mysteries at the core, they draw depth and appeal from her carefully applied layers of family, history, and moral conundrum. And that makes them perfect books for just about every reader.

Barbara Hoffert is Editor, Prepub Alert, LJ

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Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.