5 reviews

The Distant Hours: A Novel
by Kate Morton

Published: 2010-11-09
Hardcover : 576 pages
8 members reading this now
31 clubs reading this now
7 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 4 of 5 members
A long lost letter arrives in the post and Edie Burchill finds herself on a journey to Milderhurst Castle, a great but moldering old house, where the Blythe spinsters live and where her mother was billeted 50 years before as a 13 year old child during WW II. The elder Blythe sisters are ...
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(A long lost letter arrives in the post and Edie Burchill finds herself on a journey to Milderhurst Castle, a great but moldering old house, where the Blythe spinsters live and where her mother was billeted 50 years before as a 13 year old child during WW II. The elder Blythe sisters are twins and have spent most of their lives looking after the third and youngest sister, Juniper, who hasn?t been the same since her fiance jilted her in 1941.��

Inside the decaying castle, Edie begins to unravel her mother's past. But there are other secrets hidden in the stones of Milderhurst, and Edie is about to learn more than she expected. The truth of what happened in ?the distant hours? of the past has been waiting a long time for someone to find it.�

Morton once again enthralls readers with an atmospheric story featuring unforgettable characters beset by love and circumstance and haunted by memory, that reminds us of the rich power of storytelling

Editorial Review

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Discussion Questions

1. The novel opens with the prologue from Raymond Blythe's fictional, famous work, The True History of the Mud Man. He writes: "The moat has begun to breathe. Deep, deep, mired in the mud, the buried man's heart kicks wetly…the Mud Man opens an eye. Sharp, sudden, tracks it back and forth." (p. 3) Did you think that the Mud Man was a human being, a monster, or something else? Why did the author choose to open the novel with such a dark, frightening story? How did reading this prologue affect the way you entered the story?

2. From the beginning, it is clear that words, books, and stories have a strong hold on Edie Burchill. Referring to the letter her mother receives from Juniper Blythe, Edie reflects, "a letter will always seek a reader…sooner or later, like it or not, words have a way of finding the light, of making their secrets known." (p. 9) Why does Juniper's letter have such a strong impact on Meredith? How does Edie's experience as an editor and obsession with words impact her determination to unravel the mystery of Milderhurst Castle, the Blythe sisters, and her mother's role in their lives? Besides Juniper's letter, what other words—in the form of letters, diaries, stories, books—make their secrets known in the novel?

3. Again and again, Milderhurst Castle is portrayed as a living, breathing entity, constructed of stones that "sing" and riddled with passageways that form a network of "veins." When Edie first meets the sisters, Percy refers to herself as a buttress for the castle's architecture—"I've done what was necessary to stop the walls collapsing around us" (p. 67)—while Saffy cannot spend more than one night away from the castle, "due to strong feelings about sleeping in her own bed and being on hand to prop up the castle, bodily if need be, should it begin to crumble." (p. 125) Why is Milderhurst Castle depicted in such human terms, and why are the sisters described as a physical part of the castle itself? To what extent does the castle depend on the sisters for its existence? To what extent do the sisters rely on the castle for their survival?

4. Edie has two encounters with Juniper in the first section of the novel. The first time, Juniper is a confused and disheveled old woman. Just pages later she is fresh faced, girlish, and dressed in the wedding gown that Saffy made for her so many years before. Discuss what Edie learns about Juniper in each instance and why the author depicts Juniper in contrasting ways in such quick succession. Does Edie have more sympathy for one version of Juniper than the other? Which version of Juniper is closer to who she really is?

5. With the exception of Juniper, the Blythe sisters do not know that Edie Burchill is Meredith Baker's daughter. Why doesn't Edie ever reveal who she is to the sisters? Do you think that Percy and Saffy had any knowledge of her true identity?

6. Saffy constantly expresses her displeasure over the war and how it has affected her life. She thinks to herself, "It was a tragedy that so many of the nation's flower gardens had been abandoned or given over to vegetable cultivation…Lack of potatoes left a person's stomach growling, but absence of beauty hardened the soul." (p. 122) How does Saffy attempt to keep the castle beautiful despite the difficulties posed by the war, and why is beauty so important to her? What examples do you see of characters whose souls hardened because of a lack of beauty during the war? How does Saffy's view of war and wartime life contrast with Percy's?

7. As Saffy and Percy wait for Thomas Cavill to arrive at Milderhurst Castle on that fateful evening that he and Juniper are to announce their engagement, Saffy remarks, "You mustn't prejudge him for being late, Percy…it's the fault of the war. Nothing runs on time anymore." (p. 198) What does Saffy mean by this comment? To what extent does war still affect the sisters' lives and life at Milderhurst Castle in the present day sections of the novel?

8. Just as Aunt Rita never understood why Meredith did not want to leave Milderhurst and return home when the evacuation was over, Percy cannot understand why Saffy wants to leave the castle and take a job in London. Why are Meredith and Saffy both drawn to a life that is opposite to their own? What does Meredith gain by living in the country, and why does she run away from her parents when faced with the prospect of moving back to London? Why does Percy allow Juniper to go to London and not Saffy?

9. As Edie and her mother sit in the emergency room after her father's heart attack, Edie says, "I was sunk by the sense that I knew everything and nothing of the person sitting next to me. The woman in whose body I had grown strong and whose house I'd been raised in was in some ways a vital stranger to me." (p. 243) Why is it so jarring for Edie to learn the secrets of her mother's past? Do you see any parallels between Edie's discoveries about her mother's past and the discoveries that the Blythe sisters make about one another? How do the characters attempt to understand revelations about family members whom they thought they knew?

10. When Percy explains her reasons for not handing Milderhurst over to the National Trust, she says, "A place is more than the sum of its physical parts; it's a repository for memories, a record and retainer of all that has happened within its boundaries" (p. 319). In light of everything that happens in the novel, how do you interpret this statement? What does Milderhurst mean to the sisters and why do they feel so connected to it? Why do the Blythe sisters say that the castle's stones sing of the "distant hours" and what does this mean?

11. Recalling the first time she encountered The True History of the Mud Man, Edie reflects "that in my hands I held an object whose simple appearance belied its profound power….real life was never going to be able to compete with fiction again." (p. 31) By contrast, Thomas, who teaches literature before he enlists in the army, believes that words on the page cannot compare to real life: "When he read to his students about the battle cry of Henry V, he scraped against the shallow floor of his limited experience. War, he knew, would give him the depth of understanding he craved." (p. 354) Which character's perspective do you identify with more, and why? How does each character's viewpoint on reality versus fiction prove to be true or false based on their experiences throughout the novel?

12. Throughout the course of the novel, the author offers various perspectives and opinions about Juniper's mental state and what sets her apart from her sisters. When Juniper hallucinates, some doctors prescribe pills, while "Daddy said they were the voices of her ancestors and that she had been chosen specially to hear them." (p. 368) Why do you think the author is deliberately vague about what affects Juniper? Why is Juniper so afraid of becoming like her father? What does it mean for her to "lose time" when the past and present are so intertwined throughout the novel? Are Percy and Saffy justified in their efforts to keep Juniper as sheltered as they do?

13. Just as the characters of the novel often feel as if incidents from the past are occurring in the present day, the structure of the novel moves in time between past and present, allowing insight into characters at various stages in their lives and a unique window into the events that shaped them. Did you find this technique of switching between time periods effective? Which sections did you prefer, the past or present? Why do the events of the past play such a vital role in what happens in the present day sections of the novel?

14. Toward the end of the novel, Edie learns the origins of the story of the Mud Man and Saffy's nightmares. Edie thinks, "It was little wonder he'd been driven mad by guilt." (p. 583) If this is true, why does Raymond take up Saffy's dream and turn it into a story for children to read? Does writing The True History of the Mud Man do anything to assuage his guilt? How does the publication of the book and the story affect the Blythe sisters? What is it about the story of the Mud Man that captivates readers to the point of obsession? Who can most lay claim to the story of the Mud Man?

15. Discuss the conclusion of the novel. Do you think Edie was honest about her reasons for not wanting to write the prologue to the new edition of The True History of the Mud Man? Do you think Edie's involvement with the sisters in any way led to what happens to them at the end of the novel? Were you surprised by the fate of the sisters? Why or why not?

Suggested by Members

At the beginning of the book Edie mentions readers have one book that makes an impact on their lives. Which one book was that tipping point for you?
by mamabearreads (see profile) 07/22/17

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Note from author Kate Morton:

The Distant Hours begins with Edie Burchilll, a young woman who’s visiting her parents for lunch when a mysterious letter, lost for fifty years, drops through the mail slot. Edie’s mother breaks down upon reading who it’s from – Juniper Blythe, of Milderhurst Castle. And so, a mystery is sparked. Edie determines to learn the truth about her mother’s secret past, and is drawn into the war-time world of the three Blythe sisters, elderly spinsters now, and living together still in the crumbling castle in which they were born and raised by their father, Raymond Blythe, author of the children’s gothic classic, The True History of the Mud Man.

I was a third of the way into writing a different story when the sisters Blythe started whispering in my ear. I tried to ignore them but they were insistent and eventually I agreed to give them one week. I set aside my other project – temporarily – in the hopes that the sisters would that way be appeased, that I might silence them and convince them that they had to wait till next time. I wrote the first chapter of The Distant Hours in which the lost letter arrives and Edie learns the name Juniper Blythe in a single night, and by the time I went to bed, I knew I wouldn’t be returning to the other project. I couldn’t. It was clear to me that this was the story I had to tell. That happens sometimes and I’ve learned that it’s best not to ask questions but rather just to hold on tight and follow the story where it leads.

The Distant Hours was a labor of love. I wrote intensively, coming up for air occasionally before disappearing once more beneath the novel’s surface. The characters are real and dear to me and the story brought together a number of my favorite things: a crumbling castle, a family of sisters, a love of books and reading, the haunting of the present by the past, thwarted love, ghostly shivers, mystery, memory and secrets.

No matter how much I adore writing, though, no matter how much pleasure my stories bring me, it isn’t until a book is read that it really starts to breathe. So let me take this opportunity to thank you, because by reading The Distant Hours, you’ll bring the characters, the past, Milderhurst Castle itself, back to life.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "A Very Compelling Mystery"by Gail R. (see profile) 07/22/17

Fans of Kate Morton will surely love this book. As with her previous novels, she has woven a truly compelling tale overflowing with mysterious themes which capture the reader’s interest. R... (read more)

  "The Distant Hours"by Shannon V. (see profile) 07/22/17

While the story kept my interest overall; it also ran much too long. They could have easily trimmed 100 pages out of the book.

  "The Distant Hours"by Chris A. (see profile) 08/08/13

I enjoyed the lovely descriptive writing, but admit it could have been 200pp+ shorter!!! Very interesting story & characters. The last 150pp flew as all was revealed.

  "The Distant hours"by Mary A. (see profile) 08/07/13

As typical of Kate Morton, she is extremely long winded in her descriptions. That being said, her writing is very beautiful. She left much on the table as far as story development. While she tied up... (read more)

  "difficult to follow"by Jessica E. (see profile) 09/26/12

  "Worth Reading"by Rachelle P. (see profile) 08/11/12

This book will keep you trying to figure things out until the very end. I am normally annoyed by stories bouncing back and forth between time periods, but this was done artfully by Morton.

  "not worth the time"by Laura M. (see profile) 01/21/12

This is not a bad book and some of our club members really liked it. But most of us felt it was too long and had very little payoff for the length of the book. This is better for an individual read.... (read more)

  "The Distant Hours"by Johna S. (see profile) 10/23/11

Kate Morton has weaved another perfect tale! Milderhurst Castle takes on a life of its own and should be considered a main character in this book. Beautifully written, you will be transformed to a place... (read more)

  "The Distant Hours"by Nancy B. (see profile) 09/02/11

I love Kate Morton's books and this one was exceptional. Full of dark mysteries that captured my intrigue and imagination from page one. Great read full of many twists and turns.

  "Edith and "the Sisters Blyth""by ELIZABETH V. (see profile) 09/01/11

THE DISTANT HOURS by Kate Morton first introduces us to Edith. Edith is an editor who gets stuck having to, needing to, or wanting to unravel various mysteries throughout the book. All of th... (read more)

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