Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s third novel, Bittersweet, is a long, winding, slow-burning fuse of a novel that leads to one hell of a stack of dynamite at the end.
Mabel Dagmar is nobody special. She’s got into the prestigious East Coast college she attends on scholarship, escaping across the country from a tangled family history in Portland, Oregon. Suffering from a bit of culture shock, she is quiet and hasn’t made many friends. One day toward the end of the year, tragedy strikes the family of her East Coast royalty roommate, Genevra “Ev” Winslow. In the wake, Mabel is surprised to find she has become friends with this blue-blooded girl, so much so that she is invited to stay at the family compound in upstate New York. Winloch has been in the Winslow family for centuries, with many cabins built upon acres of land surrounding the main house. There are private beaches and meadows and an invisible staff to tend to everything. It’s paradise like Mabel has never dreamed. But as she gets deeper inside the Winslow clan, mysteries arise surrounding their wealth and a dark truth to the charmed life emerges that leaves Mabel with a grave decision: expose the Winslows for what they are, or join them.
I did my best to summarize this book, but nothing does it more justice than the back cover copy.
I read the majority of Bittersweet next to a lake in Washington state, and it could not have been a more perfect reading experience. The sound of the water lapping gently under the dock on which I sat was the best background noise I could have asked for while reading Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s melodious descriptions of the Winloch grounds. Even without the perfect reading setting, Bittersweet puts you in the lakeside state of mind with its relaxed language. It is truly the perfect summer reading.
Mabel Dagmar is a fascinating main character. She is a girl who has been so isolated by her own dark secret that she is willingly blind to the one-sidedness of her friendship with Ev. Desperate for connection, as well as covetous of the life Ev has led, Mabel lets herself be dragged into a world she couldn’t possibly have imagined. At the beginning of the novel, Mabel is so naive she is unaware of the ways she is being used by everyone around her. But by the end, she is a smarter and stronger version of herself, with new knowledge of the world’s moral grey areas than she ever expected to gain. Her character arc is truly a steep and impressive march, presented so deftly the reader isn’t truly aware of the heights to which they have climbed until they look behind them once they’ve reached the peak.
By the time the reader reaches the climax of the action in this novel, they’ve been lulled into the same false sense of peace that Mabel has. The reveals come one after the next, and while they’re not always entirely surprising, they still hit hard as they in turn dismantle Mabel’s image of Winloch and all it stands for. Once I reached this point in the novel, I could not stop reading. I finished the book that night eager to find out where the story was going to take me.
All in all, Bittersweet is possibly my favorite book this summer. You have to read it. If you can find a lake to read it by, all the better.
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