Kate Morton does her best to write the updated Gothic novel plugging in the typical variables into a well-used and beloved formula that usually yields a great deal of entertainment and quality reading time for those of us who enjoy the genre. In this case, a moldering castle, a trio of spinster sisters and a secret help to create atmosphere while a letter written back in 1941 and finally delivered in 1997 jumpstarts a flailing mother/daughter relationship while uncovering some unsettling facts about the origins of a children's literary classic.
For the most part, "The Distant Hours," Morton's third foray into this type of romance, works as an entertainment, meaning that it succeeds in whiling away the time of its audience in a way that both engages and has them desiring more. However, Morton's labyrinthine style of telling stories within stories while changing point of view and time periods begins to get cumbersome after the reader figures out where the plot is actually going and that the overall effect on the main characters really isn't all that critical.
One of the main characters, Meredith, comes to the castle as a child evacuated during the bombing of London during WW2. Morton introduces us to her personal angst with regard to her view of her own self-worth and the role the castle-dwelling sisters play in helping her determine her future. But for the most part, inasmuch as Meredith only serves as a technical vessel to change the novel's venue to the castle, none of this has any great dramatic relevance that later on will cause the reader to ooh and ahh when the climatic scenes are reached and the mystery is no longer shrouded in secret.
Likewise, Edie, Meredith's daughter, the primary narrator of the tale, and the person whose actions somewhat drive the plot, really gains nothing from the whole experience recanted in over 500 pages. She begins as a storyteller and ends as pretty much the same personality with perhaps a better understanding of her mother as a person with desires of her own. As charming as all this bonding sounds, Morton's effort comes across as forced. She has all the components for a modern story told on fairytale turf--the woods, the castle, two Red Riding Hoods and three undernourished grandmothers. Unfortunately, her wolf is tired and dentures facilitate his bite. Present throughout the story as a legend, he seems to be added to the mix a tad too late at the point where the reader has already decided where and how the story should have ended and doesn't really care about the meandering back story told by way too many voices.
In the same respect, Morton's hunter remains non-existent: the hero of "the Distant Hours" is suggested as an afterthought rather than crafted through the thunder and lightning of human chemistry and moonlit nights. Where is the romance? The suggestion of sensual pleasure breaking through the barrier of the classic Gothic heroine's intellectual sensibilities is sadly never explored and this very necessary flare of hope and light in the midst of all the gloom never illumed. In attempting to recreate a neo-Gothic drama, Morton needs to look to past experts: the first person voices of Victoria Holt's heroines--who acted for me as initial welcomers to the suspense/romance/Gothic world and now presently, the women crafted by Susanna Kearlsey whose modern day narratives brings the heroine into her own, unencumbered by convention and class distinctions. Morton's damsel, who cannot be qualified as even "in distress" remains a voyeur like Bronte's Lockwood in Wuthering Heights. She watches and reports; the reader can only guess at her emotional station as the narration comes to an end. We may feel her pleasure that the book has come to a conclusion and all is well with the world, but as the wolf has no teeth, the maybe lovers, living happily ever after, have no heat.
For Morton, a theme revolving around a piece of literature and the backstory of its creation is already explored in her "The Forgotten Garden: A Novel." That story works better as the characters of TFG are all personally invested in the mystery's solution--lives are dramatically changed, bitterness abandoned and burgeoning love blossoms sweetly like lilies of the valley in Springtime. "The Distant Hours" goes out with not so much name-dropped T.S. Eliot's whimper, but a drama-less fizzle--Morton makes a sloppy attempt to make all things right with her fictional world--she provides the outlines, brings her audience to a premature denouement and then attempts to fully flesh out her sketch afterwards when I, for one, no longer cared.
Bottom line? "The Distant Hours" does provide the Gothic romance reader a glorious amount of time whiled away back in the day where crumbling castles and those of the manor born ruled their roasts and controlled each other and their annexed village. Alas, with no Byronic hero and little in terms of romance, "The Distant Hours" flounders a little, meandering down a path strewn with too many spinsters and would-be governesses that dead ends into the depressing debilitating corner of crushed dreams. All in all, it is recommended because of its ability to create a thoroughly chilling atmosphere and for the fact that it attempts to further along the neo-Gothic genre that since the retirement of Victoria Holt, Dorothy Eden and Mary Stewart has floundered for a new voice. Check out the novels of Susanna Kearlsey if you enjoy a modern heroine in a not-so-modern environment.
Diana Faillace Von Behren