Bitter Orange

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 30 Sep 2018

Member Reviews

I found this book quite disturbing and had to put it down.  The creepy sex, the narrators voice just gave me the willies.  I may try it again, but for now it is a DNF Apologies.
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Thank you NetGalley  for this read.  This was a beautifully written novel and I would recommend this book to my family and friends.
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I loved this moody mystery, the absolutely exquisite setting and complicated characters.  What gorgeous writing, what vivid detail, I thought this was an absolutely lovely book.
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An English country house during a sultry summer, unreliable narrators harking back to past events, a pair of mysterious lovers, an outsider yearning to belong. Claire Fuller's involving Bitter Orange (Tin House Books, digital galley) reminds me of one of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine's serpentine  suspense novels. In 1969, Frances Jellicoe, an unsophisticated 39, spies on the private lives of couple Peter and Cara when they end up sharing quarters in a derelict mansion owned by an American millionaire. Things are not what they seem, to say the least, and there's a creeping dread as Frances recalls that summer from a hospital bed years later. There will be blood. And a body.

from On a Clear Day I Can Read Forever
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Evocative, captivating, and weird (in a good way).

Fuller's richly atmospheric tale of three social misfits brought together by strange circumstances at a crumbly, creepy old house is a fascinating study in both group dynamics and the frailty of the human psyche, 

Franny, Cara, and Peter are all deeply troubled individuals in different ways. Though none meet the generic definition of "likable," only Peter fails to elicit any kind of empathy. Cara, probably the most damaged of the three, has a pitiable backstory and is an intriguing presence. And Franny, though far from a perfect person, is certainly someone you want to root for, even if there are times when you can't quite figure out why. I was heartbroken over her fate. 

The novel feels almost gothic at times (which in my book is almost always a good thing), though there were some events that went unexplained which should not have been left unattended, and I really, really didn't care for the gratuitous and completely unnecessary instance of animal harm involving a fox.
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This is a good literary fiction, historical perhaps with a bit of a mystery, a great combination.

The story is told from the point of view of one person, Frances Jellico on her death bed. She's remembering about the time before, just after her mother had died. Frances left London for a summer to a country estate The Lyntons, to survey the garden architecture, for an American man who recently purchased the property. The house was in shambles, barely able to be occupied but Frances does, and soon discovers along with a couple Cara and Peter.

The year is 1969, the time of changing social mores and Frances is on the side being left behind, perhaps due to her stifling upbringing. Frances is a bit naive, gullible, socially awkward and barely had any friends. At first she tries to keep secluded but soon the three of them are friends. Cara is moody, sometimes needs watching, and slowly tells Frances her life story during their summer in the crumbling mansion.

There is a bit of a mystery here, what happened to Cara, what happened to Frances, how Peter fits into all of this. But it comes out slowly. The frame of the dying Frances helps to add a layer of hints and mystery of what's to come. It's all well done.
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An idyllic summer passed with a compelling couple in the ruins of a mansion - what could possibly go wrong for Frances? She's lived her entire life in the shadow of her domineering mother. When the summer begins, she's setting off to begin anew after her mother's death.  The mansion where she''ll be conducting a review of statues and other whimsies has other guests, who draw her into their lifestyle of indulgence, all while spinning competing tales of their lives before her.

Years later, dying Frances is losing her grasp of reality; that summer comes back to haunt her, along with a vicar determined to get the truth from her.

This book is incredibly atmospheric. Reading it truly feels like spending a carefree summer in a crumbling mansion in the countryside. The breaks in Frances' current reality couple well with the gaps in the stories she heard that long ago summer. This book is definitely worth a read!
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Bitter Orange was an atmospheric novel that kept me reading. Claire Fuller writing is beautiful. However, this one did not captivate me as much as her previous novel, Swimming Lessons, did. I would recommend this to people who like unlikeable protagonists and character studies.
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It’s the summer of 1969 (just like that old Bryan Adams song), and Frances Jellico is a 39 year old woman, newly released from decades of caring for her ill mother. She finds a job researching architecture at a decaying mansion, and new friends: a couple also camping out there, doing research. But Peter and Cara are tumultuous even from the very beginning, and Frances is sucked into their undertow. 

I really loved this book. It’s the story of a very lonely woman making friends and stepping into the world for the first time in her life. It’s also a story about truth and lies, mental illness, and repentance. All of the characters, down to our village vicar, are peculiar and have thorny, complicated pasts. The setting itself, a once beautiful mansion succumbing to decay, is also pitch perfect.
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I was drawn to this book because I had heard great things about Claire Fuller's writing abilities, and because of the frequent early comparisons to Daphne du Maurier, and Shirley Jackson. It takes place at a crumbling British Estate, where shy, retiring, Frances Jellico is hired to study the remaining garden architecture. When she arrives, she discovers the fascinating, seemingly sophisticated couple, Peter and Cara and is instantly intrigued by them. 
As she is incorporated more and more into their lives, and into life in this house, she finds herself with the first friends of her life. Italian-speaking, constantly cooking, free-spirit Cara spends her evenings telling Frances the story of her relationship with Peter. 
I can't say much about this book without giving a lot of it away, as a lot of its beauty is in how the story is revealed. The du Maurier and Jackson comparisons are appropriate, as this is not a supernatural story, but it has a tense creepiness to it. 
(view spoiler)
Thank you to Tin House for the opportunity to read this book.
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Frances Jellico is sent to a dilapidated mansion in the English countryside in order to asses and report the value of the outside adornments. She lives in the attic, above a couple, Peter and Cara, who are there to evaluate the inside treasures. The three become very close, not taking their employment seriously and live somewhat hedonistically, taking advantage of their positions. Life soon becomes very complicated and the situation dire for this threesome. It is narrated from Frances’ unreliable perspective many years after the events take place.

I was a perplexed as to what to right for this review. There are no major plot twists or “wow” moments, yet I did enjoy the read. Reading other reviews, I see that others talk of symbolism in this and it being of the literary genre, more so than a psychological suspense, which is definitely my genre of choice. I think that this is very well-written and that this would be great for book discussions. 4 stars.

Many thanks to Netgalley, Tin House Books and Claire Fuller for my complimentary e-copy ARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
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Claire Fuller is a master of spookiness, in much the same vein as Shirley Jackson. I read her previous book, Swimming Lessons, which is very much about "ghosts" and sadness and missing people. And this novel is as well. She takes the classic unreliable narrator trope and weaves a tangled web of deceit and lies, and you aren't sure what's going to happen next! And all in a spooky, abandoned manor house, inhabited by at least two liars. I highly recommend this novel.
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{My Thoughts}
What Worked For Me
Frances – I really liked this odd, friendless character. Frances had a fractured childhood, happy until her father left her mother for another woman…her mother’s sister, and depressing for many years thereafter. At 39, Frances has never had any real friends nor lovers, and finds herself completely alone after her mother dies. She’s a very socially awkward woman, perhaps even on the autism spectrum, but she’s determined to carry on. Frances, a mainly self-taught expert, accepts a position to assess the gardens and the structures in it for an old English estate that has a new American owner. Over the course of one summer, Frances experiences more of life and relationships than she has in her previous 39 years.

“In those evenings at Lyntons I learned about wine. I don’t mean the grapes and the blends, although a little of these stuck too, but how much of it I needed to get a warm buzz in my cheeks, what the right amount was to loosen my joints and allow me to talk, and how many glasses it took for me to believe I was charming and witty.”

Cara – Cara, a free-spirited Irish woman, is also spending her summer on the estate. She’s the partner to Peter who’s assessing the mansion and the architectural pieces contained within. There’s a bit of mystery surrounding Cara, most of it self-created, but its allure is undeniable. Bit by bit, she feeds her story to Frances, who even when shocked, very much wants to believe everything her new friend shares. I liked the dichotomy that was Cara: fragile, but very much in control.

“I knew her already: hot-blooded and prickly, bewitching; a flowering cactus.”

What Didn’t
Dual Timelines – I really enjoyed the parts of Bitter Orange that took place in the summer of 1969, when Frances, Cara and Peter met. Unfortunately, the story alternated between then and 20 years later when Frances was remembering back and relating the story to Victor, another player in that long-ago summer. Every time Fuller’s book shifted to 1989, I felt disappointed and was prone to skimming. It too often broke up the much better 1969 storyline.

Too Much Architecture Lingo! – I get that assessing architectural elements was a piece of this story, but it became frustrating. I had to look up too many words, and some weren’t even in my Kindle’s dictionary. In the end, they didn’t matter to the story, but were still an annoyance.

The Ending – I felt like the story veered into unlikely territory several times, and for me the ending really didn’t add up. Two of the three main characters took actions that seemed a real stretch and left me doubting. It was almost as if Fuller wanted to end with a wow factor, but couldn’t quite figure out how to get there. It felt forced.

{The Final Assessment}
Unfortunately, Bitter Orange just didn’t deliver all that I’d hoped for. It had some big shoes to fill after Fuller’s debut Our Endless Numbered Days and 2017’s Swimming Lessons. Parts I definitely enjoyed, but as an entire story I was disappointed by just how blah I felt about Fuller’s latest novel. 

Note: I received a copy of this book from Tin House Books (via NetGalley) in exchange for my honest review.
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As with Swimming Lessons, Fuller has written another intricate and remarkable book. The lush descriptions and the dynamic characters made this book unforgettable. The crumbling English manor was the most amazing setting that was somehow both eerie and idyllic. Frances, Peter, and Cara were rather unlikable; they were ordinary people who were remarkably flawed and disconcertingly relatable. This is not a book that’s going to leave you with the warm fuzzies, but it does have a beauty that won’t be quickly forgotten.
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This book read like a nineteenth century gothic tale, in some ways, but actually took place in 1969. In continuously had trouble reconciling this time period with the behaviors and language of Frances, Cara, and Peter. Sort of a mystery and sort of something else I can't quite put my finger on. An okay read.
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I received an ARC of this novel from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. 

My heart breaks for Frances--the protagonist who never really had a chance.  

Great novel.
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I did not finish this book, because I really couldn't get into it. I had trouble understanding the timelines and what was happening. I hoped I would be able to find a character I liked enough to make me keep reading, but I didn't find that. I couldn't figure out the setting, so I had to go back and read the synopsis. The plot sounded interesting, and I wish I could have kept going.
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On her death bed, Frances Jellico is transported back to the summer of 1969. A meek and introverted woman, Frances never expected to befriend Peter and Cara, a seductive couple with a penchant for hedonistic behavior. All three spend a summer together in a dilapidated mansion, tasked by the home's last surviving heir to judge the worth of antiques and architecture. Of course, just like any other summer of self-discovery, things get out of hand and unwind into a crime that will define the rest of France's life. 

Claire Fuller is by far one of my favorite fiction writers. In a previous review for Swimming Lessons, I wrote that Fuller is an undeniable talent, but nothing would come close to the perfection that was Our Endless Numbered Days. Her first book is still my favorite, but Bitter Orange is such a close second it might as well be a tie.

The atmosphere is drenched in slow molasses tension. Everything about this novel is at once lush like an overly ripe orange tree, and utterly defunct like molding ceiling plaster. Though the plot is leisurely, the pay-off is palpable, and it comes with a satisfying Fuller-style twist. Every woman Fuller writes is multi-faceted, fully-fleshed, deceptive and honest all at once. Every women Fuller writes is as real to me as myself, and I see parts of myself in all of her characters.
 
Hopefully it doesn't give too much away to discuss the parallels between Cara and Peter's relationship in Bitter Orange to the unnamed narrator ("Fred") and Holly Golightly in Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's. "Do you think he loves me? Would he do anything for me?" Cara asks Frances one day during a lazy picnic. Cara is a sweet and flighty doe, the embodiment of the inner child, capitalizing on coy innocence tinged with forlorn melancholy. Peter is her charming, handsome protector, completely unaware (or completely uninterested) of the effect he has on the opposite sex. I read their relationship as an extension to the classic novella and it gave me so, so much satisfaction. 

With a haunting eloquence Fuller gives us a chilling ending to remember Bitter Orange by, and I won't stop talking about it anytime soon. Pick it up at your local library or bookstore when it comes out on October 9th. Thanks to Net Galley for my pre-pub copy in exchange for an honest review. 

Memorable Quotes: 

"Her story would have been simply memory and imagination without me to hear it; undiscovered and unaired, like a book without a reader." 

"I squeeze his hand. A hand in mine. Is that all we need?"
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'After she was gone, I was ready to leave too. I wanted to be rid of the memories of those years which were soaked into every surface: the chair she monitored the road from while waiting for me to return, the desk where she sat to write her regular letters to my father asking for more money, the bed where I nursed her and where she’d died- which, when I stripped the sheets, smelled of her and made me cry.'

After receiving the first letter from Mr. Lieberman, a ‘lucky thing’ after her mother’s death, Frances Jellico finds herself employed to estimate the value of a bridge at Lyntons. A welcome change having lived a life of dreary routine with her mother. Free for the first time to accept anything that comes her way, she welcomes the challenge. Having recently written articles about the Palladian Bridges at Stowe and Prior park, she is seen as something of an expert by the American, Lieberman. Self-taught, never could she have imagined her articles would reach such a wide audience, nor afford her such opportunity.

It is 1969, with this commission Frances will finally see a classical bridge in person, but it is Peter and his captivating partner Cara, ‘I knew her already: hot-blooded and prickly, bewitching, a flowering cactus”, who will hold her rapt attention. Where Cara is alive, brash, beautiful Frances is calm, collected, retiring and more comfortable in a quiet life. She first spies the couple from the attic window of the crumbling mansion, and as is her nature, shies away from sight. Returning to her task of hacking away the carpet she cannot hide for long, as Peter finds her there. Peter, an antiques specialist hired to report on the conditions of the house, attractive in a ‘worn down way’ closer to her age than Cara’s. His attractiveness makes her nervous, having little interaction with handsome men. This is the start of her ‘entanglement’ with the exciting couple. An intimacy grows, feasting over food and conversations, as she breaks free of her self-imposed matronly ways she grows into a new self. This is a big step for her, as she tells us she has lived the life of a voyeur to the ripe age of 39, forced into that role by her needy, lonely mother.

The mansion was robbed of its treasures during wartime, and Frances is stripped of her senses, what is a body if not a house? She befriends Victor, a vicar for the church of England, during the heady days at Lyntons, a friendship that outlived her time with Cara and Robert. It is present day, and he is a captive audience, wanting to hear ‘her sins’ she believes, now at the end of her life in some sort of home, where she is ill, confined to the useless ‘puddle’ of her body. Reaching back into the past, it is time to free the story that haunts her memories.

Cara is an exotic creature, from her ‘Italian ways’ to her outlandish public display at church. She is fast to share her confidences with Florence, her nature affectionate, an open book. The stories on those pages though, come into question, and are not to be trusted. What Cara confides seems to be mixed up in half-truths, similar to the fanciful imaginings of children. It is Robert who is much more like Frances. Strange, that he asks Frances to ‘keep an eye on her.’ Maybe Cara’s fire burns too bright. Peter’s enthusiasm exploring the grounds plows through Frances’ resistance, and before long she is lifted. If once excited about the mansion, her curious gaze is now on the couple. Seduced by their love, never having had a story of her own, she longs for their passion. Something sours, a crime takes place and haunts her for the rest of her days. “Soon one of these sleeps will be my last”, she tells the reader with labored effort, in the present. Before death silences her, the reader will know everything that happened between Peter and Cara. Frances will scrub her conscience of the ‘crime’, involving the three of them.

What begins as a sleepy existence for Frances culminates into a surprisingly dark story. I really enjoyed this novel. It’s like being in a gentle meadow, in repose and then the shadow of something sinister eclipses the sunlight, overtaking you. I think Fuller has won me over. Frances was stuck in a life of an elderly woman, awkward because of inexperience, too sheltered, a bit like the living dead, a stand-in ever since her father abandoned her mother. Frances’ youth fled with him, along with every chance for a real life. Put out to pasture long before her time, until this, her only awakening. Naturally, it doesn’t last. Yes, read it! It’s the quiet stories that seem far more true to life. The horrid things don’t always happen with a bang.

Publication Date: October 9, 2018

Tin House Books
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tl;dr: Pretty writing almost hides unwieldy framework. Worth a go for fans of unreliable narrators who also like greatly detailed psychological suspense set in England of 1969. (!)

Bitter Orange was something I was so excited to read and although there are some truly great passages in it--writing that makes you feel the weight and power of a moment (and in one memorable one, the acute awkwardness of walking down a flight of stairs (!)
 -- ultimately I was less moved by it than i felt Ms. Fuller wanted me to be. 

The plot is so stuffed with everything that's happening that it became very "oh! see this?!" for me. Like being thrown the kitchen sink and then all the pipes under it, you know? 

Also, I'm so, so tired of "peeing into the lives of others" via (even limited) use of spyholes/peepholes/etc. I mean, I get the appeal especially since we, as readers, are doing the same. But. It's just easy and obvious and given Ms. Fuller's evident talent, a bit safe and dull.

Mostly, though, there's just such a surplus of stuff in Bitter Orange that it drags it down and I think it would have been much more compelling if it had been less embellished.
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