Last December, I read a book by Kate Morton called ‘The Lake House.’ I don’t know where I heard about this book, but it was set in England and supposed to be a mystery and those are pretty much the only elements I need to really enjoy a story. Little did I know that this book would start an all out obsession with this author and spinning timeline novels in general. These books brought me so much joy (and a lot of late nights, they are page turners to say the least!), so after I read all of them, I went on a quest to read as many of the spinning timeline genre I could get my hands on.
The basic formula of a spinning timeline novel is as follows: someone in the present (always a woman) discovers something about someone in the past that she has a link to – usually a mother, grandmother, or ancestor. We then get the mother/grandmother/ancestor’s story, which is always tragic and in some way unresolved or unredeemed. These stories are usually set during a major world event, in Kate Morton’s case, World War I, or World War II. The present person works to redeem/resolve the past person’s tragic story. There is some big crazy twist at the end, AND THEN EVERYTHING TURNS OUT OK. This is a very important part of the spinning timeline novel- things are terrible for the person in the past, but they will in fact be ok for the person in the present.
I consumed all five of Kate Morton’s books (ONLY 5!!!) in rapid succession, recommended them to everyone I knew and now check her website weekly to see when she plans on coming out with more. She’s pretty tight lipped on the subject.
So that you too can develop a spinning timeline novel obsession, I’ve ranked all the Kate Morton books for you, from my favorite to my least favorite:
1. The Lake House
Spinning timeline: Modern day/WWI/some WWII/post WWII
The basic plot: A police officer is forced to take a break from her job (because something crazy happened, it’s important to the story), so she goes to stay with her grandfather in Cornwall. While on a run, she discovers an old house that, guess what, is full of secrets and unresolved family drama. The secrets and family drama take us back to the 1930’s, where a young blossoming writer’s life is turned upside down when her family suffers a tragic loss during their annual Midsummer’s eve celebration.
This was the first Kate Morton book I read, and that may account for my affinity for it- but it’s so good! I have recommended it to so many people, always with the caveat “You just need to remember that it’s going to be ok.” I say this because these books grapple with very hard subjects- family, mental illness, class, war, death, infertility, infidelity, etc. etc. but again, Kate is not going to leave you there. I don’t want to ruin anything, but it follows the formula: it’s going to be ok.
2. The Forgotten Garden
Spinning timeline: Modern day/turn of the century/WWI
The basic plot: I don’t even know where to begin. This novel has three spinning timelines. Across two continents. Let’s just say that someone inherits a house (in Cornwall again) from her grandmother upon her death and the house is (obviously) full of secrets. There’s aristocrats, turn of the century shady medical stuff, lost children, hidden jewels; essentially this book is full of crazy and I freaking loved it!
I wanted to read this book again once I had finished it! I really loved the main characters, and felt extremely attached to their story- fair warning on this one though, it does take a while to sort out all of the characters
3. The Secret Keeper
Spinning Timeline: Modern day//WWII/some 1960’s
The basic plot: A young girl in the 60’s witnesses a crime that changes the way she views her family. Now a famous actress, her dying mother struggles to tell her a secret about her life before her children. Her mother’s story takes us to London during the blitz, and weaves a story of love, loss and life on the stage (yes, there’s theatre!!).
One of the main characters is a bit hard to stomach, but once you get into the other stories, she fades into the background. This has one of best twists in any of her novels- I can usually see something coming, but I had no idea with this one.
4. The Distant Hours
Spinning timeline: Modern day/WWII
The basic plot: A young woman discovers a secret about her mother that leads her to the castle where she spent time as an evacuee during WWII. Three eccentric, ancient sisters live in the castle, and they’ve got some tales to tell.
This book was written in first person, which kind of threw me off a bit. The narrative shifts perspectives each chapter, which is perfect for getting all of the secrets (and there are a lot of secrets). One of my favorite things about these books (and mysteries in general) is that the main character in the present is often able to piece together the story in terribly convenient ways- like someone left a diary detailing the exact bad things they did and/or someone has a spidey sense of clairvoyance towards the final few chapters where suddenly it all becomes clear. This book leans on this tactic a lot less than the others, and it makes for great storytelling.
5. The House at Riverton
Spinning timeline: Modern Day/WWI
The basic plot: An old woman is contacted by a director who is making a film about a poet’s suicide that occurred at the house where she was “in service” (think Downton Abbey) during WWI. I’ll give you a hint as to which house: the one at Riverton. We are transported back to her youth, where she meets (and becomes enraptured) with the teenage Hartford children, whose tragic lives set the stage for her own.
Don’t get me wrong, I still loved this book, but one of them had to be last. This was perhaps the most depressing out of all of them- all of the books deal with very heavy and dark themes related to both family dynamics and war, so they aren’t exactly light beach reads or anything, but this one was particularly rough.
So there you have it! And if you need more of an endorsement from me, these books would be perfect for curling up by the fire (or the Christmas tree) for hours. Happy reading!