Cbr12bingo Orange, BINGO (color diagonal)
Bitter Orange is a rather dark and twisted tale, perfect for those who enjoyed Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. Set during the summer of 1969, this novel features Lyntons, an old abandoned English home in the country, full of secrets and perhaps ghosts; Cara and Peter, an attractive and lively couple who are temporarily in residence there; and a single, middle-aged woman named Frances who also spends the summer there and acts as our narrator, reviewing the events of that time from 20 years later. This novel is a real page-turner, with characters who come across as both sympathetic and perhaps untrustworthy and with themes related to punishment and redemption.
Frances is already around 60 years old when she begins reminiscing about August 1969 at Lyntons. We aren’t sure exactly where Frances is, but she is clearly unwell and being cared for in an institution. Her memory is a bit sketchy, but she knows that her regular visitor is the vicar who had been in residence near Lyntons back in 1969, and this man wants very much for Frances to speak the truth about what happened there 20 years ago. From here, Frances makes forays back in time, revealing bits and pieces about her past, her reasons for being at Lyntons, Cara and Peter’s pasts and their time at Lyntons, and in the end, the big reveal about what happened involving Frances.
Reviewing novels like this is always tricky because you don’t want to reveal any of the twists and spoil it for others. Most reviews, however, do indicate that Frances, Cara and Peter are all together on a job for an American named Liebermann who has purchased Lyntons and needs an inventory of the house and grounds. Peter is a specialist whose job is to describe and provide the inventory for the house proper, while Frances was brought on to assess the grounds and gardens. Frances in 1969 is a rather frumpy, dowdy 39-year-old with, it seems, very limited social skills. She has lived her life with her mother, recently deceased, and has never had any real friends. Her awkwardness and lack of social awareness are painfully obvious to the reader (a bit like Eleanor Oliphant), and Frances is initially overwhelmed by her housemates Cara and Peter. Yet she is also irresistibly drawn to them, and when she discovers a “Judas hole” (a secret peephole) in her bathroom that allows her to observe them in their bathroom, Frances cannot resist. Before she actually meets Cara and Peter though, Frances meets the local Vicar (named Victor), who is struggling with his faith and with the faithful. We see throughout the novel that Victor tries to be a friend to Frances and tries to warn her off of Peter and Cara, but as Frances gets to know the couple, they draw her in. For the first time, Frances is treated as a friend, as someone worth knowing and spending time with. She starts smoking and drinking, enjoying the couple’s food and company, while also spending less time doing her actual job. But there is trouble in Paradise. Cara is an emotionally unstable young woman with a murky past and a complicated relationship with Peter. And Frances’ feelings about Peter, Cara and their actions become complicated as they entangle her in a web that she can partially see and does not necessarily wish to escape.
The supernatural is always at the edges of this novel. Cara is a superstitious woman, and Frances has several shocking and unexplained experiences within the house. Is someone gaslighting her or are there really some kind of spirits there? The history of the house itself is troubled and tragic. Could it be haunted? Meanwhile, Peter serves as the resident pragmatist and atheist, constantly trying to show the women that their concerns are groundless and irrational. Peter is an interesting foil to Victor the man of God, and the women’s relationships with these two men are curious as each at different times is drawn to one man or the other.
Fuller’s descriptions of the natural world, the sensory world, are deserving of particular attention though. Lyntons feels like a kind of Garden of Eden. It is remote, with the nearest village being several miles away. Frances, Cara and Peter are left to their own devices with only rare visits from Victor; Mr. Liebermann is across the ocean in the US, an almost God-like figure who is the source of all good things for them but also an abstract, unreal entity. Frances’ experience at Lyntons is almost like a birth. It is the site of many “firsts” for her — the friendship, the exotic foods, alcohol, cigarettes, living away from her mother. It is also where she gets an eyeful of Cara and Peter through the Judas hole, where she hears strange sounds in the night and smells something rotting around her in the attic. Frances becomes a different person at Lyntons, and she understands this and welcomes it as it happens. She also accepts the consequences of this later. At the end of this novel, we the reader can see the truth of what happened at Lyntons, but we must ask ourselves whether those consequences that Frances accepts are, indeed, just and right.
This is a very well written novel and a compelling read. There is always the sense of an impending doom, of an encroaching darkness amidst the pleasures. We know something terrible is going to happen but the exact nature of it is not clear, and Fuller manages to incorporate matters of morality/penance/justice into this story with a deft touch. This would be a good selection for a book group.