Saturday, December 20, 2014


Title: Bittersweet
Author: Miranda Beverly-Whittemore
Publisher: Crown Publishing
Pages: 385

The cover page, with its expanse of a lake and the house in the distance, displays a steely calm that the events unfolding in the book belie. On the surface, life at Winloch is remarkably serene and beautiful, and yet there are undercurrents of bitterness that threaten to rip the calmness apart and expose the ugliness within.

First person narrator Mabel Dagmar is fat, short and hails from the wrong side of the tracks. Her roommate at the prestigious East Coast college to which she has a scholarship is Genevra (Ev) Kathleen Winslow, born to money, fame and sophistication and bred for a life of luxury and rehab clinics.

Mabel doesn’t think that Ev even registers her name, and yet gradually, she becomes Ev’s friend, at least that’s what she assumes. We readers are never really sure. Ev’s attitude towards her alternates between verbal abuse and patronization, but Mabel, lonely and bent under the weight of something that happened six years ago when she was 12, grabs at Ev’s feeble acknowledgement of her and assumes that it is friendship.

When Ev invites her to Winloch, her family’s summer estate, Mabel jumps at the opportunity. At Winloch, she tries to ingratiate herself into the good books of Ev’s family members. She is even willing to clean up Ev’s dilapidated and weatherworn cottage, Bittersweet. It is evident that Ev has brought Mabel along only to help her get the house cleaned. But for Mabel, it is a personal project as she looks upon Winloch as her own.

Meanwhile, Ev’s aunt, Indo, gives out family gossip and befriends Mabel, and the youngster learns a lot by shutting her mouth so the rich folk forget she is around or listening. When Indo asks her to find something untoward in the family archives in return for an opportunity to inherit her cottage after her death, Mabel, anxious to be a part of Winloch, immerses herself in the search. 

She finds a willing partner in Galway, Ev’s single, older brother. Rifling through the archive, she finds the diary of Katie Spiegel, Ev’s German-born paternal grandmother, which is almost ingenious in its deceptiveness. The diary is written in cryptic language, forcing Mabel to snoop further to solve its mystery. But is Galway truly an ally, willing to expose the wrongdoing of the family or will he sell out? And will exposing the family’s hideous secrets bring about her expulsion from Paradise?

The story begins in February at the college, then moves to June, July and August at Winloch and then to June the following year, the last an epilogue to the novel.

As a character, Mabel is shockingly different. The first shocker is when she unabashedly pleasures herself in Ev’s cottage in full view of open windows, her excitement heightened by the element of risk. And that is how she first meets Galway, making this the most unconventional meeting between two lovers of the opposite sex, in literary fiction.

From the beginning, Mabel comes across as needy, clingy, even slightly obsessed with Ev. Her relationship with her parents is not explained, cloaking their domestic life in mystery.

An invitation marks the beginning of something,” the author says, but here Mabel is destined to be forever on the outside, looking in, even as she longs to belong to this beautiful world.

There was altogether too much description, but I liked it, maybe because it was all so new to me, and it helped to establish the Vermont setting, something I was unfamiliar with. Even so, a greater part of this rather long novel is consumed by this relentless need to establish the setting, to indicate the idyllic nature of the haven that is Winloch. Day after day of picnicking seems to be the agenda for the Winslows, and the foreboding takes way too long to justify itself.

The novels that Mabel reads tell us a lot about the kind of person she is. In college, her idea of socializing is reading Jane Eyre, at its heart the story of a friendless governess who made good.

Then on her vacation to Winloch, she takes along Paradise Lost, required reading for the course she will take and emblematic of the big fight between Good and Evil that will soon play out at Winloch. She never goes beyond a few pages of the epic, throughout her summer at Winloch.

The chapter names are simple, to-the-point yet revelatory. They offer a good foil to the symbolism that is rife through the book. Winslow is an Eden, untouched, unspoiled. Galway and Mabel are almost like Adam and Eve; their snooping almost gets them thrown out. Strains of Paradise Lost, once again it is knowledge of the forbidden that takes away innocence here. 

True to its name, Bittersweet was exactly that for me, in parts bitter and sweet.

The bitterness arose from the fact that halfway through the book, I had no idea what was so hateful about Mabel’s family, why she invested so heavily in the Winslows when they were really no better. Was it the wealth that held sway?

We receive bits and pieces of information, a hint of domestic violence against her mother by her father, an unspeakable fate for her brother.

But the Winslow family also has its own secrets and almost everyone is hiding something.

The mystery element of the story takes much too long to be evoked and even longer to be resolved. Until then, the mystery bolts on all the doors are an irritant; they annoy one rather than whet the appetite.

It is also hard to get really involved in a book in which the main character is so unlikeable. Sometimes Mabel seems downright cruel, and I found it hard to sympathise with her because of her selfishness. It is hard to see the world through the eyes of a narrator who is as deceptive, in her own way, as Katie was in her journal.

This one was good while it lasted.

    Blogging for Books provided this book to me for free in exchange for an honest review.

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