Pleasures: Pure and Bittersweet

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.

bittersweetBittersweet 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.

14 thoughts on “Pleasures: Pure and Bittersweet

    • Heh! Yes, that was pretty much my experience of reading it. Although I found the revelations inadvertently amusing and I did enjoy the book overall. Without them, I’d have been able to recommend it wholeheartedly.

  1. I will be popping over to have a look at SNB once I have finished reading my book for Book Club tomorrow night (only 1/3 way through)!  Looking forward to it…

    Bittersweet sounds like it has all the things a thiller should have – a good setting, interesting characters and lots of fun going on.  I imagine twists in plots must be so difficult for authors to judge – the fine line between being unbelievable and being boring.


    • Yes you have a very good point there. It must be tricky to judge, and when a novel like Gone Girl does so well, there must be a lot of unconscious pressure (and some conscious) to imitate it.

  2. Too-twisty books are the kind I have to be really, REALLY in the mood for; it’s the same way I am about mediocre fantasy YA. When I’m in exactly the mood for it, there’s nothing better, but any of the rest of the time, it can grate on my nerves.

    • How wise to know that some books demand a certain mood! I am just the same with certain kinds of narrative – family stories can be one such, and psychological thrillers, too.

  3. See we think alike (or maybe this is one of the books you recently mentioned to me was a good one….)–I am in line for this at the library (even at the beginning of it) and I see that the book is even now being processed so I should get a copy very soon! I like it, too, when things stay in the land of reality, but I admit I don’t mind a surprising twist or two… As long as a book takes me away from life, though, especially lately, I tend to be pretty forgiving. I do love Carol Goodman’s books by the way, so something else in its favor. Must go and check out SNB for those new additions, too! 🙂

    • I am a big Carol Goodman fan, and those elements were the parts of Bittersweet I enjoyed the most. I think you would enjoy the family secret parts of this, and I’d love to know what you make of the whole book and the ending in particular! If you are in the right mood for this kind of story, then it would be a good hunker-down and lose-yourself kind of book. Do let me know if you read it!

    • I can imagine you liking some parts of it, but not others. It’s quite well written, and there are some bits of the plot that are very good. It’s tricky to call it, though. And after all, life is short and there are so many books!

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