How far will you go to fit in? What secrets will you seek, and what secrets will you keep? Those are the perennial questions that Mabel Dagmar faces as she finds herself immersed in the lavish lifestyle of her wealthy roommate for a summer.
Mabel is a simple girl from Oregon who has the (mis)fortune of rooming with wealthy, party-girl Genevra their freshmen year of college. Theirs is largely a relationship of indifference, wherein Ev tolerates Mabel’s presence while mildly hiding her disdain for her. A turning point is Ev’s 18th birthday, in which she follows family tradition by donating a Degas to their college (how disappointing that it wasn’t The Met). Mabel’s invitation to the celebratory affair marked the first time the two women have any real personal interaction. The result is Mabel’s invtation to vacation with Ev in her family’s estate, Winloch, in Vermont.
To its credit, Bittersweet, isn’t a boring book at all. At worst, it could be called slow-paced, but it’s actually quite apt given most of the story takes place at a leisurely summer settlement. It’s also quite aptly named. Bittersweet is the name of the cottage Ev owns in the settlement, but it also describes the overall tone of the summer. What is a great opportunity for Mabel to experience something other than the humdrum of her own life also carries with it the acridity of the environment is always apparent.
The story itself unfolds around Ev’s eccentric aunt Indo challenging Mabel to find the “truth” about the Winslow clan and regain what is rightfully hers. Mabel’s quest centers around an old Van Gogh that hangs in the home of the Winslow patriach, Birch, and scouring family documents. In the process of seeking the truth about the Winslows, Mabel is introduced to a cast of characters who fiercely guard the Winslow name and reputation. Its matriarch, Tilde, is a shrewdly proud woman, who is an unlikely ally for Mabel. Ev’s brother Galway seems to be a love interest, but his own secrets keep him at bay. That the Winslow clan has secrets is obvious. How sordid those secrets are is beyond comprehension.
When I finished reading this book, I admit I was taken aback not only by the Winslow’s secrets, but also in how they were resolved. Mabel both met and failed my expectations for who I thought she’d be when faced with the naked truth. However, that’s what makes her real. There isn’t a clean, neat happy ending with this story, but it’s not all that tragic, either.
A bonus to this book is the reading guide at the end. It offers a conversation with the author about her motivations in writing Bittersweet, as well as guided questions that can be useful for a book group. There is also a recommendation of books with similar themes. While some are well-known, the reader is also given some lesser-known options, as well.
Overall, I definitely would recommend Bittersweet. It has just the right mix of suspense, romance, and action to keep your interest piqued. Also, you won’t really see the truth coming until it’s right in your face. For that alone, the read is worth it.