Tangerine  – ★★★★
Tangerine is a debut novel which is now both gaining visibility and provoking some strong reactions – there are apparently as many people who love this book as there are those who hate it. The story is about two women – Alice and Lucy, who take turns in the story to share their thoughts on past and present events. Alice, who shared friendship with Lucy in the past, is now married and lives with her husband John in Tangier, Morocco. Unexpectedly, Lucy also arrives to Tangier to rekindle her friendship with Alice after a year of separation. When John disappears, Alice and Lucy have to question both their relationship and their lucidity. The downside is that Mangan’s book gets much too close in its plot and characters to Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr Ripley , but it is still an intriguing and enjoyable read. Mangan uses simple language and manages to weave a thriller which is slow-burning and deeply psychological, while also vividly evoking the colours of Morocco.
Those who like books that delve into characters’ thoughts and psychology behind their actions will find a lot to love in Tangerine. The book is written from the perspectives of two characters – Alice and Lucy, and it is interesting to follow their thoughts and reactions to the same events occurring since both are unreliable narrators who try to make sense of themselves, each other and the new country. Even though most of the present day action is happening in hot and exotic Tangier, the two women regress to their past and reminisce about their first meeting at Bennington College, Vermont. Alice and Lucy were roommates when they studied at college, and grew close because of their similar familial situations – they are both orphans. Alice was instantly attracted to Lucy’s independence, while Lucy admired Alice for her openness to the outside world and for her sense of class, something which can be gained through wealthy upbringing. It soon becomes clear in the story that Alice and Lucy share a very complex friendship bond, and the reader can guess how their past shapes their present in Tangier.
Cleverly, Mangan withholds from her readers much of the information from the start, making us question the true personalities of Alice and Lucy, as well as the nature of their relationship. In the book’s first half, we also hear the references to a mysterious “accident” which happened sometime in the past and which implicated both girls. The author just prolongs the suspense by not revealing everything there is to know. Later in the story, when two women find themselves in Tangier, one becomes overly cautious about her surroundings, while another grows more confident and falls in love with the chaotic life that Tangier represents. This is where the distinctive personalities of the girls emerge: one who is fearful, relying on others and on the order in her life, and another who is prepared to fight for everything in her life. It is also in the Tangier setting that we first note the paranoia arising in the vein of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca , with two women realising that their past is not something easily shed, and the story even has hints of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith .
Despite many descriptions of mental states of the characters (everyone in the novel sees what they want to see), Mangan’s novel is very cinematic. The setting is Tangier, year 1956, and the story dreamily references the heat of the place, the “electrifying souks” with their “labyrinthine curve” [Mangan, 2018: 90] and traditional cafes where one is served Moroccan mint tea. In this way, the novel is rather transportive; one sentence reads “As I moved through the markets, my eyes trailed over the tall mounds of spices, from the brilliant shades of squash-coloured turmeric, to the crushed rose petals and overflowing baskets of whole peppercorns” [Mangan, 2018: 356]. Christine Mangan claims in one of her interviews that she has never read Highsmith’s novels The Talented Mr Ripley or The Two Faces of January , but only seen the respective films. This is hard to believe, but it definitely explains why one may imagine so many film scenes when reading this book and why the book sometimes reads like a film script.
In the end, the characters’ motivations and expectations do not make much sense in this book, but this is hardly the biggest concern. The worry is that there are too many similarities both in plot and in characters between Tangerine and The Talented Mr Ripley. I hope I am not giving any spoilers by saying that both books share one poor, identity-confused and orphaned protagonist (A), who had to fight for their life to survive. A then intrudes on the life of another person (B). In both books, B is wealthy and has a beautiful partner (C), and interactions between A, B and C provide the main drama in the story. In both books, A and B share an odd friendship, and are strangely attracted to one another. Fr example, in both books, one character “manages…to pull [another] from the comfort of [the] hiding spot…had exhumed [another] from the voices of the dead and thrust [another] into the world of living” [Mangan, 2018: 40]. Mangan and Highsmith’s books also share exotic settings, feelings of paranoia, odd disappearances happening, as well as the themes of obsession, jealousy and infidelity. Both books even share the same trope of mistaken identities, “cold” and indifferent aunts and strange telephone conversations. More worryingly, both books (and the film) make references to the dressing up in another person’s clothes, jazz music and the protagonists’ love for travel. The list goes on.
Tangerine is a curious tale of obsession under the sun, with impressive character studies and a delayed suspense. There is this feeling that book could have been better had the author been more original in her story and more imaginative regarding the ending, but Tangerine is still a good debut and an unputdownable read.