Bittersweet, by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, was a book I stumbled upon via one of those Amazon “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” features while looking for another book. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I often judge a book by its cover, and I was drawn to the cover of this book.
Plain of face and meagre of means, Mabel Dagmar is a scholarship student at a prestigious college in New England, where she shares a room with blue-blooded Genevra Winslow, whose parents are old Vermont money. The two roommates barely get along, but unusual circumstances result in Mabel being invited to spend the summer on the Winslow’s island in a cabin known as Bittersweet. It doesn’t take long before Mabel realizes the Winslows have plenty to hide. That’s okay, because so does Mabel.
I found the story took a long time to develop. In fact, operating under my motto that life is too short to read a bad book, I nearly abandoned Bittersweet. I am so, so glad I didn’t.
While Beverly-Whittemore doles out her story slowly, almost painstakingly at first, once she grabbed me, I couldn’t put the book down. Short chapters led me to frequently think, “I can read just one more chapter.”
Even before the story grabbed me, I was drawn to the author’s use of language and learned-in-grade-school literary techniques like alliteration. For example, Elegant Ev checked in on me more than once; apprehensive Annie sought me out for company; blundering Banning spilled his daughter’s apple juice all over my sandal, making my left foot moist and sticky for the rest of the evening.”
Or this, “I began to see the nonfamilial, simply familiar, connections between them, and understand that to sit upon the rocks and watch the world go by was essential to the definition of being a Winslow.
I’m not wealthy, so I’m not sure the author’s descriptions of the old-moneyed Winslows is accurate, but I always had such a vivid picture in my mind of what it was like to have so much money you don’tknow what to do with it. Rich people names like Murray and Owen and Birch and Tilde and – my favorite – Mhairie, abounded. It was small things like names and clothing descriptions that really gave such a clear snapshot of the Winslows and their wealth.
The Winslow’s secret is despicable, and Mabel’s journey to learn the secret provided for a great mystery. Her own story, which she only hints at throughout the book, isn’t told until nearly the last page of the book. One of Beverly-Whittemore’s literary tricks was to dole out Mabel’s story, little by little, via letters she writes her mother but never sends.
Critics complained that the book wraps up too quickly and too close to the end. Personally, I liked that the author kept me guessing until the end. My only complaint is that there was a lot of “peeping tomfoolery” going on – a lot of sex in general, really – some of which was important to the story, but much of which wasn’t, I felt.
I recommend Bittersweet for those who like a good mystery under somewhat disturbing — well not really “somewhat” — circumstances. Great book for book club discussion.
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Buy Bittersweet from Tattered Cover here.
Buy Bittersweet from Changing Hands here.