Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller. Tin House Books, 2018. 317 pp.
While summer holidays abroad are still off the table in our 2021 reality, Bitter Orange offers an invitation to the summer of 1969 as Claire Fuller’s atmospheric writing drops readers into Lyntons, the crumbling remains of a once grand English country mansion. Told in floods of memory twenty years later, the story of that boiling summer is relayed from the perspective of a now bedridden Frances Jellico, the woman hired to survey the estate’s garden architecture for its new American owner. However, instead of focusing on her work, she is swept into the lives of Peter and Cara, the young couple staying in the rooms below hers while Peter inventories the main house. Like the bitter oranges growing in the estate’s orangery whose bright, friendly exteriors hide a sour taste, Lyntons and the lives it holds are less sweet than they appear.
As Frances settles into her attic rooms, she stumbles upon a judas hole—a small telescope beneath her floorboard that peers into Peter and Cara’s bathroom. This violating glimpse into the private world of others begins an eerie theme that creeps in from the very walls of Lyntons. From walking down the halls while blinded peacocks glare from the silk wallpaper—their eyes probably scored out by bored American soldiers when the house was requisitioned during WWII—to unknown faces peering down from the windows of empty rooms, this novel is brimming with the weight of gazes from watchers unseen.
At the beginning of the summer, Frances, Peter, and Cara indulge in a bacchanalian dream. Laughing and drinking entire weeks away, they lounge together in vintage finery found on the grounds, completing the disguises for their idealized selves. The trio’s early days at Lyntons pass by in a golden haze, but with each sunset the darker truth of reality slinks closer to the surface. Opening up to “Franny,” the couple begin sharing their story, although their tellings do not align. Their accounts of the past diverge most sharply in the vague mentions of the child that Cara “let go.” Exaggerations attributed to Cara’s Irish storytelling style and the things left unsaid by Peter and Frances initially seem innocent, but begin pointing to intentional misdirection. As the story unravels, uncertainty multiplies but one thing becomes clear: none of them are being honest with each other, or even themselves.
A powerhouse of psychological thrillers in her own right, Ruth Ware’s back cover blurb for Bitter Orange describes it as a “dark pressure cooker of a novel that simmers with slow heat and suppressed tension.” I find that the tension Ware highlights is fueled by the novel’s dizzying fluctuation between scenes of bucolic bliss and the pungent reality of mortality, grief, and guilt that follows these characters. For example, a scene of the trio being greeted by four deer close enough for them to “see their nostrils open and shut as they sniffed the air” which prompts Cara to exclaim, “I’d like to stay at Lyntons forever,” is abruptly followed by stumbling upon an already rotting, yet still struggling fox ensnared in an illegal trap. When Peter slits the fox’s throat in an act of mercy, Cara flees the woods and threatens to run away from Lyntons and Peter entirely, only moments after pledging to stay forever. In Bitter Orange there is no truth without dishonesty, no sweet without sour.
Samantha Hunter is a Library Assistant at Mebane Public Library. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.