Miranda Beverly-Whittemore's previous novel, SET ME FREE, was inspired by, and included plenty of allusions to, Shakespeare and his plays, particularly THE TEMPEST. Her latest novel, BITTERSWEET, finds its inspiration in Milton's PARADISE LOST.
The narrator of BITTERSWEET, Mabel Dagmar, sets off on summer vacation after her first year of college intending to read PARADISE LOST in advance of a seminar she will be attending in the fall. Little does she imagine how much the themes of sin, alienation and innocence lost will resonate with her by the time summer is over.
Mabel's summer will be spent at Winloch, the Vermont lakeside estate owned by the family of Mabel's freshman roommate, Genevra “Ev” Winslow. Mabel, who is an ordinary-looking girl from a working-class family, had been largely ignored by Genevra during the first half of freshman year. But she is abruptly taken under her roommate's wing the same night she meets Ev's parents, on campus for a reception at which Genevra is donating a painting to the campus art museum.
"...an excellent summer novel --- one that will continually remind readers about the fleeting, perhaps even illusory, nature of summer, of memory, and of innocence."
It turns out that each Winslow child inherits a painting upon turning 18, with the expectation that the painting will be donated to a worthy institution (two of Ev's brothers donated theirs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art). And, as Ev explains to Mabel as summer approaches, at 18 the Winslow children also inherit a cottage at Winloch, theirs to spend summers in for the rest of their lives. Ev's cottage is called Bittersweet, and she enlists Mabel's help to come along to Winloch and help her clean and fix it up so that it can pass the parental inspection required for the official transfer of ownership.
Mabel, whose own family history is somewhat sad and secret, grows infatuated with the wealthy, beautiful Winslows, who seem to lead charmed lives in this idyllic setting. Sensing, perhaps, Mabel's desire to become part of the family, Ev's aunt Indo offers to give Mabel her cottage if Mabel can find certain Winslow family secrets hidden in the archives. At first, Mabel --- who doesn't have much evidence to go on --- finds little information at best. But soon, her research, combined with real-life events at Winloch that summer, reveals the dark secrets lurking beneath the Winslows' gleaming facades.
"We live in the world with sorrow in it," Mabel reflects as she begins to grasp Winloch's secrets, "the world that Adam and Eve created the moment they tasted that apple. Each of us humans has a moment --- if not many --- in which we lapse… We humans are doomed to it. Worse, it is our destiny to look back longingly, with nostalgia, at our world before we changed, at who we were Before." Over the course of her story, Mabel journeys from innocence to experience and, equally importantly, to a realization that knowledge and experience can be painful but also powerful.
Set amid the lakes and woods of northern Vermont, BITTERSWEET is an excellent summer novel --- one that will continually remind readers about the fleeting, perhaps even illusory, nature of summer, of memory, and of innocence.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on May 23, 2014