The Short Version: Mabel Dagmar is an ordinary-looking, ordinary-being girl on scholarship at a prestigious college. Her roommate is a scion of the Winslow family, one of the wealthiest families in America. Somehow, they end up friends – and Ev invites Mabel to summer with her at Winloch, the family estate in Vermont. But as Mabel discovers some of the terrible secrets about the Winslow family, she must choose between revealing them (and being expelled from this life she desires) or being okay with becoming one of them…
The Review: Ah friends, summer is arriving with some speed, it would seem. The days are getting sticky with astonishing rapidity and I can’t help but think about a time when things slow down a bit, when all there is to do is go hang out outside or explore or nap. You know: the dream of summer (or of summers that have honestly been left behind at this point because of climate change). And what better way to ring in this ever-earlier summer than with a summertime novel like Bittersweet?
I have the slight shameful admission that this book rose near the top of my to-read pile several times late last year but always ended up sinking back down and seemed perennially destined for the mid-stack until I was lucky enough to hear Miranda read from it (at a joint reading with Will Chancellor) – and I knew I had to pick it up again immediately. She was unabashed about the awkwardness of teenagers and the way she created the tension between Mabel and Ev – not angry tension, but just the tension of people from radically different worlds who can’t understand each other’s – was instantaneous. Having gone to a prestigious college and been around insanely wealthy people… yeah, I could relate. Not entirely, but I could, specifically in the sense of being swept away by the comfort of that life – seduced, almost. Just as Mabel is caught up in it, especially in the early pages, the reader is too: we’re borne along into this world that (let’s be honest) many of us probably don’t have any context for.
And we get, for the most part, a pretty solid young-women-one-summer sort of novel at first. There are hints of strange other things going wrong, something rotten in the state of Winloch – but these things are only hinted at. The eccentric aunt who asks Mabel to help her uncover a family secret, Ev’s older brother who may or may not have the hots for Mabel, the icy matriarch and too-charming patriarch… we get the sense, very early on, that things are not right but we don’t really dive into these things until later. The first half of the book is much more about learning the ropes of the world and attempting to fit in. And on a warm afternoon, the book’s pages are bound to fall away with ease.
In the back half, as the mystery picks up steam a bit, some of the niceties are dispensed with and Ms. Beverly-Whittemore begins to be a bit more workman-y about things: there is a plot to develop and hints from earlier begin to pay off on a regular schedule. Things build towards but never quite achieve the dangers that were hinted at, though. Veering away from spoilers, I’ll just say that several characters could have ended up in truly perilous circumstances but instead these threats remain backgrounded – making the danger, especially to Mabel, more psychological than anything else. For as tense as things get, we never feel as though she’s truly in danger; only that she will have to make a difficult choice at some point. That doesn’t make the book any less enjoyable, just makes you realize that the stakes are a little different than you might’ve expected/anticipated.
Rating: 4 out of 5. A deeply enjoyable summer novel. It’s nothing extraordinary – instead, it’s just exactly what you want to read on the beach or on the deck on a summer’s afternoon. If you have the time, you’ll burn through it in just a few goes – but if you get interrupted (for, I don’t know, grilling or drinks or swimming or something) it’ll be waiting for you to dip back into whenever you get back. The mystery has a satisfying payoff (although I’ll admit I laughed a little at one angle of the whole thing, because it was such a Mystery Payoff sort of moment) and the characters are a captivating bunch. Best read this summer (or any summer) – so plan accordingly.