Now in paperback, “Bittersweet,” a New York Times bestseller by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, is a great book to kick off the summer with. Fans of Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” will especially enjoy this contemporary gothic page-turner that asks the question: what will an outsider do to belong?
Plain Mabel Dagmar comes from Oregon to claim a spot as a scholarship student at a prestigious former women’s college in New York. (Think Vassar.) Her roommate is the glamorous, beautiful Genevra (Ev) Winslow. The odd couple coexists until February, when Ev extends an unexpected invitation to Mabel:
An invitation marks the beginning of something, but it’s more of a gesture than an actual beginning. It’s as if a door swings open and sits there gaping, right in front of you, but you don’t get to go through it yet. . . . I could see my belonging sprouting from that day in February, when Ev had uttered those three dulcet words: “You should come.”
Mabel, mindful of her mother’s warning to “be sweet,” was thrilled to accept Ev’s casual invitation to spend the summer at Winloch, the Winslow family’s idylllic lakefront compound in Vermont. The girls will inhabit Bittersweet, the compound cottage that Ev has inherited.
For Mabel, who spends the summer reading Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Winloch seems like paradise. To her, it is the place of dreams, where various members of the Winslow clan gather to spend their summer. Mabel is captivated by it all: by the sailing, the tennis, the casually displayed Van Gogh, the dining hall, where meals are prepared and special occasions celebrated and by a way of life she had never imagined could exist.
Soon, as she comes to believe she has found friendship with Ev, love with Ev’s brother, and a sense of acceptance from the rest of the clan, she begins to feel as if she, too, belongs at Winloch.
Of course, just as she begins to feel comfortable amidst the understated luxury of Winloch, she begins to realize that the family is not all it seems. The source of the family’s immense wealth is shrouded in mystery. And up close and personal, the family patriarch is not the benevolent philanthropist that he had seemed from afar. Yet Mabel herself is burdened with her own guilt. Even as she struggles to protect her own dark secret, she is compelled to unravel the lies and crimes – the “worm at their center” — that the Winslows have conspired to hide for decades. She must decide if “there is such a thing as knowing too much for your own good.”
Mabel soon realizes:
That early in the summer, it might have been a relief to unburden myself, to confide that, yes, I already knew too much, entirely too soon. To confess I had come to Winloch to forget. That I believed her family, beautiful and rich, would deliver me from the bitter knowledge of my own making. I already knew too much entirely too soon.
In the end, Mabel must choose whether to pay what it takes to really belong – or, like the Adam and Eve of Milton’s epic poem — be expelled from her newfound paradise and remain the perennial outsider.
In “Bittersweet,” Beverly-Whittemore captures the effortless ease and particular traditions – wearing all white on the Fourth of July! — of the very wealthy even as she perfectly describes a young woman’s longing for acceptance. At the same time, she mines a universal truth: everybody has secrets.
“Bittersweet” is available on amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.