Bitter Orange  – ★★★1/2
Bitter Orange is Claire Fuller’s third novel in which she mixes a crime mystery, antique house drama (a hint on a love triangle) and melancholic nostalgia for the past. Her main character Frances feels like she was given a new lease of life when, at the age of thirty-nine, her previously bedridden mother is dead and she is assigned a task to catalogue garden architecture in a semi-abandoned mansion – Lyntons. At the house, she befriends a couple who rents the first floor of the building, and their present relationships and past come head to head to result in something explosive. Bitter Orange is an oddly evocative book, but also an oddly imperfect one. Sometimes frustratingly uneventful and slow, the book’s main fault is still its underwhelming, under-thought and already unoriginal characters, premise and ending.
Bitter Orange reminded me very much of Christine Mangan’s debut book Tangerine . Both of these books take the concept of “an awkward stranger “infiltrating” a successful couple”, and plot their drama around this idea. Of course, this was the premise of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley , and Bitter Orange has both the Patricia Highsmith vibe and hints of the work of Daphne du Maurier. If Lucy and Tom played the roles of shy, awkward and financially-struggling people in Tangerine and The Talented Mr Ripley respectively, Frances plays this role in Bitter Orange. The year is 1969 and Frances is a thirty-nine year old unmarried woman who landed a job cataloguing the garden architecture of Lyntons, a semi-abandoned grand mansion, now the property of an American. When she arrives to Lyntons, she finds the house is rented by a beautiful couple Cara and Peter, who soon invite Frances to join them in their exploration of the house and its mysterious environs. Frances is delighted to be in the company of such a perfect couple, and soon finds herself drunk on wine and Cara and Peter’s beautiful relationship. But, is everything as perfect as it seems? Secrets are soon revealed and other revelations made.
It is a pleasure to read the first half of Bitter Orange at least because, although the plot is rather slow action-wise, the intrigue and even some hint of a mystery are there to keep one turning the pages fast. Fuller’s descriptions of the abandoned mansion are beautiful, and Lyntons does have its own secrets to divulge in due course. All this makes for an atmospheric read, especially since the novel starts with the end – with Frances already on her deathbed ready to tell all her secrets before dying (similar to Ian McEwan’s Atonement ). The true power of the novel lies in the imagery which it evokes through language. There emerges a mental picture of – a beautiful house in disarray, which makes one want to solve the secret history of its past residents, and – empty wine bottles lying on a kitchen floor, which make one want to discover the secret history of its present residents and the root of their hopes to find architectural treasures. The citrus smell of Cara, the handsome smile of Peter, the sly glances of Frances – all these small details help to paint a picture of something idyllic on the surface but also something deeply wrong within. It is as though time has come to a standstill for the three main characters at Lyntons and they become united in their desire to live in a present moment only, to share their history with one another and then to forget it forever. Intellectual curiosity, sexual frustration and identity dissatisfaction all combine to provoke drastic actions, and if you couple this with despair and belief in superstition, then you have a recipe for a perfect storm.
Unfortunately, not all of the interesting ideas are followed through in Bitter Orange, and the book really becomes the one filled – almost exclusively – with secondary accounts of what allegedly happened with no convincing or even satisfying conclusion in sight. The story reads as though some twist is to be expected at the end, but when “it” arrives, it is more of an expected revelation, rather than anything truly ground-breaking.
Bitter Orange is an interesting read because of its mystifying premise and beautiful descriptions of Lyntons, an abandoned mansion. The downside is that the book has neither an original promise nor original revelations, and despite all the atmospheric writing and sporadic eeriness, ends up to be one’s average tale of evil under the sun.