The Clockmaker's Daughter
By Kate Morton
Pan Macmillan. 496 pp. $28
Reviewed by Jess Righthand
Everyone likes a good ghost story, and at its best, Kate Morton's The Clockmaker's Daughter is exactly that.
The author of The Lake House and The Distant Hours has assembled all the familiar trappings: The titular character's death under mysterious circumstances, a delightfully haunted house, and, of course, the present-day saps who decide they'd better get to the bottom of it all. Morton certainly weaves an elaborate tapestry — but that's not necessarily a good thing, as the story devolves into an increasingly tedious, convoluted affair.
She does, at least, get off to a strong start with the introduction of Elodie, our present-day heroine. An archivist and the daughter of a famous, deceased cellist, Elodie is engaged to Alastair, a controlling mama's boy who is easy to dislike. At work one day, Elodie discovers an old leather satchel that contains the sketchbook of Victorian painter Edward Radcliffe. One sketch of a house reminds her of a story her mother told her as a girl. Another features a beautiful, nameless young woman wearing a famed pendant called the Radcliffe Blue.
This sends Elodie on a journey to Birchwood Manor, an estate on the Upper Thames, where we hope she will uncover a mystery about her mother — as well as the story of the nameless girl in time to extricate herself from what promises to be a godawful marriage. (If the connections here sound tenuous, you're not wrong.)
At the same time, we follow the first-person story of our ghost, a young girl in mid-19th-century London whose father has sent her to live in a house of petty thieves while he makes a life for the two of them in America. There, she masters the art of pickpocketing and meets — and falls for — Edward Radcliffe.
Morton is at her best when there's palpable suspense to sink her teeth into, as when our pickpocket gets caught in the act: "Over the years I had prepared myself for this precise scenario. I had been through it many times in my head. I should have feigned innocence, widened my eyes and pretended that it was all a mistake, perhaps even produced some pitiable tears. But I was caught unawares. … Against this lady with her fancy hat, fine manners, and wounded delicacy, I was nothing."
But as soon as we feel anchored in these parallel narratives, Morton diverts our attention to an excessive cast of characters who have frequented Birchwood Manor over the past century. Several chapters go by without a mention of our main protagonists, and new central characters continue materializing past the halfway mark, at which point it would be nice simply to settle in to see what happens to those we've already come to know.
Taking on good faith that the conclusion will render the exercise worthwhile, Morton doesn't disappoint. She delivers a satisfying, emotional ending that remarkably synthesizes most characters and facets of the story.
If readers are willing to navigate its labyrinthine path, they may ultimately find The Clockmaker's Daughter rewarding. Still, one couldn't blame them for giving up on the ghost.