Pure pleasure first of all: do hop over to Shiny New Books to check out the latest update we’ve made to the first edition. We’ve been calling it the ‘inbetweenie’ amongst ourselves, as it’s just enough to bridge the gap between now and the next big edition, out at the start of July. You’ll find my biographical piece on Celia Fremlin, as well as Five Fascinating Facts about Rumer Godden. Do check out the reviews of their work, too, as well as new reviews of novels by Meg Rosoff, Alice Hoffmann and Sophie Hannah. And lots more, besides.
Bittersweet is a twisty romp of a summer reading novel that will be out in the UK at the start of June and is published already in the USA. If Carol Goodman and Dynasty had a love child together, then Bittersweet would be the result. The situation is not wholly unfamiliar: Mabel Dagmar is a dowdy scholarship girl at a fancy East coast college and she feels it sharply, not least because her roommate is the beautiful and lethargically indifferent rich kid, Ginevra (Ev) Winslow. Then, when one of Ev’s cousins commits suicide, Mabel finds herself drawn into the role of comforter and conspirator, and she loves it. Ev invites her out to the family estate in Vermont for the summer and Mabel is desperate to go, wild to escape her own family with whom she has deep but unexplored issues.
Winloch is a sprawling estate, rich in an abundance of gorgeous nature, as well as just plain rich. It’s the vision of Ev’s great-great-grandfather, Samson Winslow who bought up huge tracts of Vermont land and scattered rustic cottages across it for his descendents to inhabit, a kind of natural utopia for a dynasty, where ancient plumbing vies with original Van Goghs on the walls. Ev has recently inherited a cottage named Bittersweet and needs Mabel’s help to make it habitable. Before long, Mabel has begun to infiltrate the family, hypnotised by a promise made by Ev’s crazy aunt, Indo, that Mabel can inherit Indo’s cottage if she helps her track down documentation that proves a wrong done to her many years ago. And of course, all the Winslow papers are just sitting in the attic in the main building where the family collects for its meals, laid out and ready for Mabel’s spying eyes.
Mabel has a lot on her hands, trying to keep the fickle Ev onside whilst figuring out who she’s seeing in the secret liaisons she sneaks off to, forging what feels like a genuine bond with Ev’s younger sister, Lu, and running scared of Ev’s terrifying parents, the falsely matey Birch and his frosty perfectionist wife, Tilda. She’s also falling in love with Ev’s brother, Galway, and can’t be sure if he is a better specimen than the rest of his family, or whether he’s just stringing her along, too. Amid the idyllic skinny dipping and the family picnics, she’s trying to figure out the disquieting secrets bound up with the family’s sudden acquisition of vast wealth in the aftermath of the Depression. Mabel feels compelled to get to the root of the problem, but if she does so, how can she keep her place in this brave new paradise she’s found?
This is a lot of fun – adolescent shenanigans, secrets and lies, hidden diaries, old documents, smiling tyrants, sexual tension and dead turtles all come together in a narrative that unites coming-of-age with the Gothic thriller. It’s extremely engaging until the last quarter, where Gone Girl has a lot to answer for. We could all see this coming, couldn’t we? Now any thriller worth its salt is determined to pile on the sensational melodrama as we rock up to a never-saw-it-coming conclusion. In all fairness, the final resting point of the story is in fact something I didn’t see coming, and it was rather intriguing. There is, however, some madness to weather before reaching that point. If you like your family scandal pungent and outrageous, you’ll enjoy it anyway. The best way to read this one is not to take it too seriously, but to understand it is like watching a glossy saga on TV on a weekday afternoon. For me it would have been a better book if it had lost a twist or three from that end section and remained within the realm of plausibility, but I realise I am old-fashioned in that respect. I still enjoyed it.