Cover Image: Bitter Orange

Bitter Orange

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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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I didn't like anything about this book...the story, the characters or the setting. I think some books are made for some people, but I wasn't one.
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This book had a strange, fairytale like atmosphere. The setting is an old, dilapidated estate where Frances is employed to write a report about the buildings.  She meets Cara and Peter who are also spending the summer there, where Peter is employed to do a similar task.  Frances, a repressed and stodgy spinster is charmed by Cara, who is a fantasist, but falls in love with Peter.  Their carefree existence comes crashing down when the results of their non-productivity and Peter's larceny will soon be discovered.  This book reminded me of Anita Brookner's Look At Me, about a young woman mesmerized by a charismatic married couple.  There is a sense of doom that pervades their happy, simple life and when the denouement comes, it is a shocking one.
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A haunting story with a fantastic sense of place.  There's a definite parallel to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting, but not in a derivative way.  Would love to see this is as a film...
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I flew through this one. I have been a fan of Claire Fuller since reading Swimming Lessons. This book follows the story of a couple, Peter and Cara and another character Frances. Frances becomes really intrigued with the couple and begins spending a lot of time with them. But little things start to make Frances start to question things about the couple. Go get this book.
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Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller is set in the crumbling, dilapidated estate of Lyntons in the summer of 1969. Socially awkward academic, Frances Jellico, is commissioned to spend the late summer cataloging and writing about the estate's gardens and architecture for the absentee owner. Upon arrival, Franny finds she doesn't have the house to herself. Peter, an antiques specialist accompanied by Cara, his girlfriend, has been sent to catalog the interior of the house. Frances, who who has spent most of her life caring for her ailing mother and away from social interaction, is in awe when the elegant couple begin inviting her to join them for dinner and picnics. However, something isn't quite right between the pair of lovers. Stories don't seem to add up, items begin to go missing around the home, and tensions slowly begin to build between the mansion's residents until the day a series of events will unfold that will change their lives forever.

Claire Fuller has written a well executed, atmospheric novel in a perfectly spine-tingling manner. I simply couldn't put it down. The novel is written in a back-and-forth style with the story being told from the narrator looking back on the summer of the past with short glimpses of the present day and the consequences they've endured. It seems to be a popular writing technique among many authors and it's one that I enjoy reading as it works to build the level of suspense.  The darker mood was added to by the suspicion of a ghostly aspect. I loved the ending, as it was totally unexpected. Overall, this will be a book that stays with me for quite sometime.
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A little way into Bitter Orange I thought the voice sounded so familiar but couldn't put my finger on why. Then I decided to see what else Claire Fuller has written and there it was--Our Endless Numbered Days, which was one of my favorite books of 2015.

I'll be thinking about this one for a while. Frances is a memorable and troubled character and now that I know how the book ends, I'm thinking about earlier scenes more and more. This is one I'll have to buy when it's published so I can read it again and flip around the pages.
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