Adolescent friendships are unique: The close friends we make as children almost become part of our family, watched over equally by supervising parents, teased or ignored by resident siblings. Glad to be included, they become part of the whole and accept conditions without thought or judgement. On the other hand, our adult friends find us as self-sufficient beings, with loosened family ties. Only the friends of our adolescent years perceive the context of our family’s past and the adults we will become. More observant than young children, they witness the stresses in these families they know and, being teenagers, they sometimes judge, although they rarely blab about what they learn. Self-conscious and plagued by hormones, most teenagers prefer to keep secrets.
These are the undercurrent themes of Bittersweet, Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s new novel about identity and lies. Mabel Dagmar is her narrator, a working-class girl dependent on scholarships for her college education and the opposite of her roommate Genevra Winslow, the assured descendent of a wealthy, Eastern family. To Mabel, the Winslows exist in rarefied existence of Ivy League schools, named summer cottages and the kind of confidence that only comes from generations of independent wealth and she joins Ginevra for a summer vacation at the family compound with the envy of an outsider.
Mabel’s search for her own identity follows two patterns many teenagers follow. First, she rejects the choices her own parents made and then she tries to absorb the values of someone else, in this case, the exalted, entitled Winslows. Although these attractive people appear to collectively exemplify the virtues of New England wealth (including one or two eccentric relations) Mabel sees, as the summer lengthens, that coils of subterfuge and lies bind these people together as surely as money, blood and tradition. Then she sees how those coils reach out and destroy other people. Eventually Mabel must choose what kind of adult she will become, which set of values she will embrace.
In some ways, Bittersweet follows the classical pattern of a Gothic story: a young woman in an isolated, romanticized setting discovers some big, bad secrets and a big, bad adversary. Yet, this is no Jane Eyre. For one thing, Mabel lacks Miss Eyre’s spiritual convictions and is burdened with secrets of her own so she has to rely on different weapons to overcome the adversaries and makes more fallible choices. However, the stronger difference is the setting and this highlights the new writer’s skill. Instead of the moors or a brooding castle, Bittersweet is set in a summering Vermont wood that is half camp and half family estate. It is Ms. Beverly-Whittemore’s prose that shows evil can shine in the summer sun and stalk victims through twilight and fireflies.
Bless those with faith in the innocence of summer, They should have life in abundance and look elsewhere for stories. Bittersweet speaks for witnesses and adolescent friends and those who know the power of secrets.
My thanks to Blogging for Books for providing me with a copy of this novel. LLG