Thursday, June 19, 2014
Bittersweet follows Mabel Dagmar, a "plain" girl whose roommate in college is the gorgeous Genevra Winslow from a wealthy, blue-blooded family. Mabel unexpectedly becomes friends with Ev and is invited to spend the summer at the Winslow family compound, Winloch, in Vermont. For more than a century the Winslows have spent summers in Winloch, generations of gorgeous, blonde people with interesting names (Galway, Indo, Birch, etc). Mabel is desperate for the chance to escape her own family and dark secrets and moves into Ev's cottage, named Bittersweet, for the summer.
The beginning of the summer goes well. Mabel and Ev are essentially alone in the compound before the whole family shows up. They clean Bittersweet from top to bottom for an "inspection" by her parents, which Ev insisted was necessary to Mabel staying for the summer. Mabel also has an embarrassing encounter early on that gets her noticed by Galway, Ev's older brother. Ev disappears frequently, off with a couple different men, including the family handyman, John. Left to her own devices, Mabel befriends Ev's younger sister Lu and her eccentric aunt, Indo, who sets much of Mabel's summer into motion by asking her to research some of the family history. There's a rare painting, a Van Gogh, that Indo claims belongs to her. However, Birch (Ev's father and Indo's brother) has the painting hung in his home. Indo essentially promises to leave her cottage to Mabel in exchange for learning some of the mysterious secrets about the family, a task that Mabel finds frustrating.
Ev and John's relationship grows closer, although remains a secret from most of the family and Mabel is shocked when Ev reveals that she is pregnant and planning to run away with John. Around the same time, Mabel is drawn to Ev's older brother, Galway, who she launches into a passionate relationship with. She can't help but notice some of the strange elements at Winloch: Ev's mother's coldness, Indo's outcry against her brother's controlling ways, the bolts that are inside Ev and Indo's cottages, etc. Everything comes to a head one night in July when something horrible happens to one of the characters, sending Ev and Mabel into a total tailspin for the remainder of the summer and setting up their futures once and for all.
All this time Mabel was desperate to be a part of this family, wishing to hide from her own past and longing for what she perceives as the comfort of beauty and wealth. However, she slowly starts to expose the dark secrets that haunt the Winslow family and her opinion of them will change forever. Question is, is it too late for her to escape? Despite being set during the summer on a lakeside compound, this definitely is a gothic novel. The characters aren't always likable and the pacing is uneven (sometimes way too slow and then a lot happens at once), but in general, it's a good novel for long, hot summer days. I definitely recommend it!
Buy it at amazon and Barnes and Noble
Tuesday, June 17, 2014
Someone on amazon commented that a pregnant woman should not read this book. And as a pregnant woman who read the whole thing, I can say that is probably the case. However, I was in the mood for a thriller and this seemed like the perfect thing. Head's up: I am going to discuss the ending of the book so if you don't want spoilers, don't read beyond the "Spoilers Below" section. I'll do the basic intro first, though.
The plot follows three different women: Claudia, Zoe and Lorraine. Claudia is towards the end of her first pregnancy. After suffering through many miscarriages and stillbirths, she is finally pregnant with a little girl. She is also the stepmother to young twin boys, whose mother died of cancer when they were newborns. Her husband, James, is a naval officer who spends much of his life at sea. She is a social worker who does not intend to give up her job after the baby is born. She and James decide to hire a nanny to help out at home.
Zoe seems younger than she is (she's probably in her early 30s). She is perfectly competent with the boys and helpful around the house, but she is also nervous and skittish and comes off as a bit sketchy to Claudia, who is already nervous about relinquishing control around the house to Zoe. Something about her is definitely off to the reader. Both Claudia and Zoe's chapters are told in first person, but Claudia's perspective seems more honest and open than Zoe's... at least at first.
The third point of view in the book is Lorraine, a detective coping with her husband's recent affair and her daughter's impulsive engagement at far too young an age. Lorraine and her husband (another detective) are investigating two gruesome attacks on pregnant women. In both cases, the child did not survive, but the second young woman did, although was unable to give too much information after her attack (I think it happened later in the book, if I'm remembering correctly). Lorraine's story is told in third person, and frankly to me seemed the most disconnected. I would have been more interested in her storyline if it had been more focused on the attacks on pregnant women, but she was caught up in her husband's infidelity and daughter's drama. I'm not sure if that was purposeful to direct the reader's attention away from the rest of the storyline, but it seemed like an unnecessary tangent, although the infidelity does end up being connected, albeit briefly, to one of the later reveals of the story.
Reviewers on amazon gave this book great reviews. And I definitely liked it. The last line of the book, in particular, was haunting. Again, I found the change in voice (between first and third) was a bit odd, but in the end, it was interesting to see how the reader was fooled by the characters themselves, particularly Claudia and Zoe. The novel was suspenseful and had lots of twists and turns. As I said, the ending was quite a surprise. It wasn't a particularly challenging read but was engrossing and fast paced and I recommend it if you like thrillers.
And now onto the spoilers. Do NOT keep reading if you do not want to know the ending.
Zoe is definitely sketchy. She searches Claudia's home when Claudia is out, stumbling on her employer's box of sad mementos from her past pregnancies (this was very difficult for me to read having gone through seemingly endless fertility treatments and not being quite 20 weeks when I read this book) which ended in miscarriages and stillbirths. She also keeps trying to get into James' study to investigate something. It's unclear what. She also has a strange sister who is desperate for a child of her own. So it appears obvious that Zoe is behind the attacks on the pregnant women and that Claudia is next.
Except that this is all a red herring to distract the author from Claudia. Claudia, who had access to these woman through her social services job. Claudia, who has faced devastation after devastation in her quest to have a child. Claudia, who is an extremely unreliable narrator, as the readers discover at the end, when she attacks her own friend in the hopes of stealing her daughter. Because, you see, Claudia isn't actually pregnant. She never was. She wore an expensive, custom made suit under all her clothes that mimicked pregnancy, even down to fetal movement. She told her husband, who was rarely around anyway, that sex was off the table due to her difficult history so he never knew. Claudia, who seemed so stable, was behind it all. And Zoe, who turns out was an undercover cop, came to the rescue just in time. She was investigating some financial situation involving James' late wife, which is why she was posing as the nanny. And the connection to Lorraine? Zoe was the one who'd had a brief affair with her husband.
The creepiest line was at the very end, when Claudia is interviewed by the police. The first woman she attacked turned out to be having a boy, not a girl, which is what she told her husband she was having (ignoring the fact that ultrasounds aren't 100%). The second woman was having a child who was half black, so she couldn't pass her off as her own. And then finally, Claudia sighs and says, "do you want to hear about the others?" CREEPY!
So who knows how long Claudia had been attacking other women. We never found out how often she had been pregnant before or if she had been previously married. I really felt for her husband and the twin boys she was raising with them. Claudia clearly was nuts all along but having gone through a lot to get pregnant, I can see how the desire for a child could drive you off the deep end.
Anyway, I didn't love the idea of an unreliable narrator. I felt a little conned by the author but the story wouldn't have had such a shocking ending without that type of narrator. Definitely an exciting read.
Buy it at amazon and Barnes & Noble