Buried under all the mess in Kate Morton's The Distant Hours is an interesting story: As an adolescent during the London Blitz, Meredith is evacuated to a dilapidated castle in the country, the home of a writer and his three arty eccentric daughters. She immediately feels a connection to this family that she never felt with her own working-class family; these people understand and value her in a way her own parents and siblings never did.
When the time comes to return to London, Meredith refuses and must be dragged back by her father against her will. Though she tries to maintain her newly awakened creativity and ambition, the daily grind of her family's disapproval and lack of support eventually defeat her, and she becomes as bland and uninspired as the rest of them. It's a really thought-provoking examination of creativity and how it can be nurtured or squashed, depending on one's environment.
But Morton can't seem to tell this story in a coherent manner. It's buried under all sorts of chaff and digressions and subplots. The subplots concern the three odd sisters who took Meredith in; her daughter, who is shocked to discover this episode in her mother's past; and some mystery about a lost letter and a lost lover. Chapters jump back and forth in time randomly, and for some reason the chapters set in the present have names, while those set in the past are just numbered. Thus a chapter called "The Plot Thickens" is followed by a chapter called "Two."
I can't tell you how disappointed I was. The only thing worse than a bad book is a bad book with a good book inside it.
Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.