Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore – Book Review [Lady Salvatore]
Lady Salvatore tests the theory that the
beach read thriller Bittersweet is a contender
to be as great as Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.
“While intriguing, Bittersweet doesn’t quite pack the punch of The Secret History,” Lady Salvatore, The Founding Fields
The novel Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore predominantly takes place at a summer estate in Vermont called Winloch. It is set in the present timeline, but the writing can often make you feel as if it is set in the past. Specific words and descriptions leave you feeling confused as to when, exactly, this is taking place. Only the mention of cell phones left me certain that this was not in, say, the 1950’s. Winloch is what you expect when you hear of a rich family that owns its own summer getaway. Individual cabins, the largest house for the patriarch of course; a glittering lake with sailboats and Canadian tourists; and some dark secret that everyone is trying to hide or run from. Miranda Beverly-Whittemore does a fairly decent job of setting the dark undertone, which is what kept me reading when I might not have otherwise.
I don’t think I liked ANY of these characters, except for Abby. And Abby wasn’t even a person, she was a dog. These characters are for the lack of a better term, douchebags. They’re very pretentious and annoying. I get that she tried to write the rich Winslow family, owners of Winloch, as an untouchable, otherworldly group, but she had me wondering the whole time why the heck anyone would want to be like them. And the main character, the “heroine”, Mabel Dagmar. Excuse me… “Mabel”? That’s just one part of this girl’s effed up life. She is not relatable, whatsoever. She’s selfish and annoying, just as bad as the Winslow clan themselves. The character doesn’t grow, even when the author has her realize “Oh hey, I am like them”, it doesn’t come as a surprise. And her decision at the end of the book just solidifies her stupidity, to me at least. The only character that sort of intrigued me was Mabel’s roommate, Genevra “Ev” Winslow. She is in a constant state of flux and I found her mental instability refreshing in a cast of stale characters. Maybe if she had focused on her as the main character instead, this could have been different. I love a good unreliable narrator.
The first half of this book (which is almost 400 pages) just lagged. We meet Mabel and Genevra. We meet the Winslows and see Winloch. We learn things are a little off there and “daring” Mabel decides she wants to learn their secrets. This shouldn’t take that long to get through, but it takes over 230 pages. Those 230 pages are filled with strange sexual encounters that, in the long run, do not really relate to the story; arguments between Ev and Mabel; and learning way too many names of characters that don’t really do anything for the story. We also get weird hints about something that happened involving Mabel’s brother, but you don’t find out about that until the towards end, and it’s just tacked on. Finally the book gets to the supposed “meat” of the story. But it was not shocking at all. None of it. It was too contrived and easily guessed. By the time I got to that part I figured I might as well finish, if I’ve already gotten this far. The ending was nothing stellar and only half wrapped things up.
I was really excited when I found this book. Reading that it was like one of my favorite novels, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, had me anxiously awaiting my turn on the hold list. This is NOT like The Secret History. Yes, it is a group people with a dark secret, but there is WAY too much going on. The Secret History focuses on one act, one situation and its impact upon the people involved. Bittersweet “focuses” on a dark history of a family, that isn’t even believable once she throws it all in there. Miranda Beverly-Whittemore goes from incest to rape to murder and even to Nazis. The back story is so convoluted and disorganized it is unbelievable. And to expect the reader to think at least one person in the family wouldn’t do anything about this is nuts. The revelation about what happened to Mabel’s brother really was unnecessary, the whole idea of it was unnecessary to the novel. It was just another “dark secret” she thought was integral to the book. Also, Mabel’s relationship with Galway, one of the Winslow brothers, was bizarre. I haven’t seen such a big case of insta-love in adult fiction in quite some time. The whole novel just didn’t sit right with me. There was too much going on once you finally got to the “action” part. When there was nothing going on it felt like listening to a boring story about someone’s camping trip.
Bittersweet is Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s third novel, her first two are The Effects of Light and Set Me Free. She lives in New York and grew up spending her summers on Lake Champlain, which was the basis for this novel. You can find her on Goodreads or Twitter (@MirandaBW). You can obtain her novels at your local library, Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
So while, unfortunately, this book was not what I anticipated and did not live up to my expectations, it was well loved by many members in the Goodreads community. If you’re looking for a good story of dark secrets and intrigue, start with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History or Laura Kasischke’s The Raising (which, in my opinion, out of all the books so far that has been compared to The Secret History has lived up to that expectation). Bittersweet went the way of another novel that claimed to be similar, The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller: it didn’t pack a punch and wasn’t quite believable.
Rating – 2, not worth your time, don’t pick it up if you don’t have to.