Bittersweetby Miranda Beverly-Whittemore
Suspenseful and cinematic, Bittersweet exposes the gothic underbelly of an idyllic world of privilege and an outsider’s hunger to belong.
On scholarship at a prestigious East Coast college, ordinary Mabel Dagmar is surprised to befriend her roommate, the beautiful, wild, blue-blooded Genevra Winslow. Ev/b>/i>
Suspenseful and cinematic, Bittersweet exposes the gothic underbelly of an idyllic world of privilege and an outsider’s hunger to belong.
On scholarship at a prestigious East Coast college, ordinary Mabel Dagmar is surprised to befriend her roommate, the beautiful, wild, blue-blooded Genevra Winslow. Ev invites Mabel to spend the summer at Bittersweet, her cottage on the Vermont estate where her family has been holding court for more than a century; it’s the kind of place where children twirl sparklers across the lawn during cocktail hour. Mabel falls in love with midnight skinny-dipping, the wet dog smell that lingers near the yachts, and the moneyed laughter that carries across the still lake while fireworks burst overhead. Before she knows it, she has everything she’s ever wanted: friendship, a boyfriend, access to wealth, and, most of all, for the first time in her life, the sense that she belongs.
But as Mabel becomes an insider, a terrible discovery leads to shocking violence and reveals what the Winslows may have done to keep their power intact - and what they might do to anyone who threatens them. Mabel must choose: either expose the ugliness surrounding her and face expulsion from paradise, or keep the family’s dark secrets and make Ev's world her own.
The theme of paradise lost courses through this coming-of-age tale tinged with mystery—Beverly-Whittemore’s solid, if not particularly inspired, third novel, after 2007’s Set Me Free. Self-conscious college scholarship student Mabel Dagmar feels as if she has won the golden ticket when her freshman roommate, Genevra “Ev” Winslow, an impossibly glamorous scion of the gilded Winslow clan, invites her to spend the summer at Winloch, the family’s sprawling estate in Vermont on Lake Champlain. But she soon starts to discover how wrong she is, as with so very much about the Winslows. For all their lean, blond beauty and their designer names, the Winslows—including Birch and Tilde, Ev’s parents; and Ev’s brother Galway, whose attentions encourage Mabel to fantasize about becoming part of the blue-blooded tribe—have more squalid secrets than her own, with theft, rape, and incest the tip of the viceberg. As the increasingly tragic story unfolds, the taste left in the reader’s mouth is more likely to be sour than bittersweet. Agent: Anne Hawkins, John Hawkins & Associates. (May)
*NEW YORK POST’S “SUMMER’S HOTTEST FICTION” PICK*
*NEW YORK DAILY NEWS’ “BOOKS OF SUMMER” PICK*
“Beverly-Whittemore is at her best bringing Winloch vividly to life, evoking the look and feel of its cottages and dining hall, and its daily summer rhythms…A fairy tale aspect – of the Grimm, not the Disney variety – pervades the novel, which artfully builds an increasing sense of menace…Like a Downton-in-Vermont, Bittersweet takes swift, implausible plot turns, and its family secrets flow like a bottomless magnum of champagne, but Beverly-Whittemore succeeds in shining a light into the dark, brutal flaws of the human heart.” —New York Times Book Review
“Mesmerizing gothic thriller…Bittersweet is worth savoring—it unfolds like a long summer day, leisurely revealing the dark.” —People, Lisa Kay Greissinger
“What begins a little like Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep quickly warps into a sickly addictive thriller…think ABC’s Revenge when it was good, only more scandalous…With books like Bittersweet to stuff in beach bags, it’s beginning to feel a lot more like summer. A-” —Entertainment Weekly, Stephan Lee
“Beverly-Whittemore has crafted a page-turner riddled with stubborn clues, a twisty plot and beguiling characters.” —Kirkus, starred review
“[An] intriguing outsider tale of the 1%.” —The New York Post; Summer’s Hottest Fiction pick
“For fans of Edward St. Aubyn… Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s Bittersweet spins a New England gothic filled with blonde bluebloods and heavily bolted doors.” —Vogue.com
“Evokes Gone Girl with its exploration of dark secrets and edge-of-your-seat twists.” —Entertainment Weekly, Lanford Beard
“Takes the reader inside the glamorous world of the super-wealthy, where everything is not as it seems, and dark, long-buried family secrets gradually make their way to the surface. ...its strength lies in its elements of mystery. The result is a page-turner that will keep readers guessing until the end.” —BookPage
“Suspenseful and intriguing, filled with characters who both fit the blue-blood mold and break the stereotypes we all associate with the upper class. Her short chapters, with their cliff-hanger endings, will keep readers turning pages late into the night.” —Booklist
“Beverly-Whittemore captures both the idyllic beauty of a Vermont summer and its dark shadows …gothic tangles wind the plot more and more tightly. …A suspenseful tale of corruption and bad behavior among wealthy New Englanders. Readers who enjoy coming-of-age stories featuring dark secrets that affect generations will find much that appeals here.” —Library Journal
"In the tradition of The Great Gatsby, Miranda Beverly-Whittemore's heroine is an outsider invited into the secret, labyrinthine world of the super-richbut the twist is, you never met such debauched people as the Winslows. Bittersweet is a satisfyingly dramatic, super-juicy read." —Jenna Blum, New York Times and internationally bestselling author of Those Who Save Us and The Stormchasers
“Bittersweet is the kind of book you hope to stumble across on a rainy vacation weekend: a wild New England gothic full of family secrets, mysteriously locked doors, sailboats, suntans, forbidden lust, and a few priceless works of art. An engrossing summer blast.” —Maggie Shipstead, national bestselling author of Seating Arrangements and Astonish Me
“In Bittersweet, Miranda Beverly-Whittemore prizes up the veneer of an old, privileged American family to discover depths of intrigue, power, and menace beneath. In its guise as a coming-of-age mystery, the book is both swift and arresting; that the novel also doubles as an insightful meditation on class, aspiration, and longing makes the book reverberate in the reader long past its final line.” —Lauren Groff, New York Times bestselling author of The Monsters of Templeton and Arcadia
“Gripping, beguiling and beautifully written, Bittersweet is a page turner that chills as it intoxicates. Miranda Beverly-Whittemore has created a family so dangerously enthralling that the more we learn of their greed and bloodlust, the more we aspire to belong.” —Kate Christensen, PEN/Faulkner award-winning author of The Great Man and Blue Plate Special
“Part coming-of-age story, part riveting mystery, Bittersweet is a tantalizing tale of an outsider thrust into a glittering world of immense privilege and suspect morals. With a narrator torn between uncovering one family's dark secrets and protecting her own, Bittersweet brilliantly explores the complicated question of what price any of us would pay to seize the life of our dreams.” —Kimberly McCreight, New York Times bestselling author of Reconstructing Amelia
“The theme of paradise lost courses through this coming-of-age tale tinged with mystery…For all their lean, blonde beauty and their designer names, the Winslows—including Birch and Tilde, Ev’s parents; and Ev’s brother Galway, whose attentions encourage Mabel to fantasize about becoming part of the blue-blooded tribe—have more squalid secrets than her own…” —Publishers Weekly
“A lot of summer books are breezy beach reads, but Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s Bittersweet ups the ante. Her story of an outsider driven by a dangerous desire to fit into a world of privilege (think Gatsby) has all the sex and secrets typical of summer books. But Bittersweet packs a bigger punch… A New England summer of first love, friendships, fireworks, midnight skinny dipping, tragedy and digging up family dirt ensues.” —The Herald News
As a young woman struggles to read Paradise Lost, she faces her own temptation. Is she brave enough to choose good over evil? Mabel Dagmar, a scholarship student at an East Coast college, is mismatched as roommate to the glamorous, privileged Genevra "Ev" Winslow. For months they lead separate lives, until Ev's mother invites Mabel to Ev's 18th birthday party—held at the school's museum, where Ev has just donated a Degas. Despite their seemingly insurmountable social differences, Ev and Mabel become friends, and Mabel is invited to spend the summer at the Winslows' summer estate on Lake Champlain, made up of cabins ranging from rustic to luxurious and a communal dining hall. She's eager to go, especially given that the alternative is working at her parents' dry cleaners, silently observing her mother's bruises and enduring her disapproval. Mabel and Ev keep house together in Bittersweet cottage, while Ev's domineering parents, Birch and Tilde, rule from Trillium House. Ev's oldest brother, Athol, arrives with his tall, athletic, refined family. Second son Banning is close behind with his more disheveled brood. The third son, Galway, is an enigma. Up only on weekends, he keeps his distance, but his eyes rest on Mabel. After a chance meeting with Ev's eccentric aunt Indo, Mabel is plunged into mysteries. What does Indo think she can find amid the old Winslow documents? Why did Ev's cousin Jackson kill himself? Why is Ev hiding her romance with John, who works on the estate? And why are so many doors locked with heavy bolts? As she uncovers evidence of dastardly deeds—some deliciously improbable—Mabel comes face to face with her own secrets. Beverly-Whittemore (Set Me Free, 2007, etc.) has crafted a page-turner riddled with stubborn clues, a twisty plot and beguiling characters.
Beverly-Whittemore captures both the idyllic beauty of a Vermont summer and its dark shadows in her third novel (after The Effects of Light; Set Me Free). Plain featured and plainly named scholarship student Mabel Dagmar catches the intermittent interest of her wealthy college roommate, Genevra "Ev" Winslow. In one moment of weakness, Ev invites Mabel to spend the summer at the Winslow family estate, Winloch. Intended as a distraction to allow Ev more freedom, Mabel takes to Winloch immediately, befriending Ev's sister and eccentric aunt, and developing a romance with Ev's brother, Galway, after an unfortunate first encounter. But at Winloch, reality is not always what it first appears to be, and gothic tangles wind the plot more and more tightly. Mabel, an inveterate secret keeper herself, uncovers the truth behind the Winslow fortune. But should she share what she knows, or adjust her moral center and keep it "in the family" so that she can take her place there as well? VERDICT A slightly wordy but suspenseful tale of corruption and bad behavior among wealthy New Englanders. Readers who enjoy coming-of-age stories featuring dark secrets that affect generations will find much that appeals here.—Melanie Kindrachuk, Stratford P.L., Ont.
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Read an Excerpt
Before she loathed me, before she loved me, Genevra Katherine Winslow didn’t know that I existed. That’s hyperbolic, of course; by February, student housing had required us to share a hot shoe box of a room for nearly six months, so she must have gathered I was a physical reality (if only because I coughed every time she smoked her Kools atop the bunk bed), but until the day Ev asked me to accompany her to Winloch, I was accustomed to her regarding me as she would a hideously upholstered armchairsomething in her way, to be utilized when absolutely necessary, but certainly not what she’d have chosen herself.
It was colder that winter than I knew cold could be, even though the girl from Minnesota down the hall declared it “nothing.” Out in Oregon, snow had been a gift, a two-day dusting earned by enduring months of gray, dripping sky. But the wind whipping up the Hudson from the city was so vehement that even my bone marrow froze. Every morning, I hunkered under my duvet, unsure of how I’d make it to my 9:00 a.m. Latin class. The clouds spilled endless white and Ev slept in.
She slept in with the exception of the first subzero day of the semester. That morning, she squinted at me pulling on the flimsy rubber galoshes my mother had nabbed at Value Village and, without saying a word, clambered down from her bunk, opened our closet, and plopped her brand-new pair of fur-lined L.L.Bean duck boots at my feet. “Take them,” she commanded, swaying in her silk nightgown above me. What to make of this unusually generous offer? I touched the leatherit was as buttery as it looked.
“I mean it.” She climbed back into bed. “If you think I’m going out in that, in those, you’re deranged.”
Inspired by her act of generosity, by the belief that boots must be broken in (and spurred on by the daily terror of a stockpiling peasantsure, at any moment, I’d be found undeserving and sent packing), I forced my frigid body out across the residential quad. Through freezing rain, hail, and snow I persevered, my tubby legs and sheer weight landing me square in the middle of every available snowdrift. I squinted up at Ev’s distracted, willowy silhouette smoking from our window, and thanked the gods she didn’t look down.
Ev wore a camel-hair coat, drank absinthe at underground clubs in Manhattan, and danced naked atop Main Gate because someone dared her. She had come of age in boarding school and rehab. Her lipsticked friends breezed through our stifling dorm room with the promise of something better; my version of socializing was curling up with a copy of Jane Eyre after a study break hosted by the house fellows. Whole weeks went by when I didn’t see her once. On the few occasions inclement weather hijacked her plans, she instructed me in the ways of the world: (1) drink only hard alcohol at parties because it won’t make you fat (although she pursed her lips whenever she said the word in front of me, she didn’t shy from saying it), and (2) close your eyes if you ever have to put a penis in your mouth.
“Don’t expect your roommate to be your best friend,” my mother had offered in the bold voice she reserved for me alone, just before I flew east. Back in August, watching the TSA guy riffle through my granny underpants while my mother waved a frantic good-bye, I shelved her comment in the category of Insulting. I knew all too well that my parents wouldn’t mind if I failed college and had to return to clean other people’s clothes for the rest of my life; it was a fate theyor at least my fatherbelieved I’d sealed for myself only six years before. But by early February, I understood what my mother had really meant; scholarship girls aren’t meant to slumber beside the scions of America because doing so whets insatiable appetites.
The end of the year was in sight, and I felt sure Ev and I had secured our roles: she tolerated me, while I pretended to disdain everything she stood for. So it came as a shock, that first week of February, to receive a creamy, ivory envelope in my campus mailbox, my name penned in India ink across its matte expanse. Inside, I found an invitation to the college president’s reception in honor of Ev’s eighteenth birthday, to be held at the campus art museum at the end of the month. Apparently, Genevra Katherine Winslow was donating a Degas.
Any witness to me thrusting that envelope into my parka pocket in the boisterous mail room might have guessed that humble old Mabel Dagmar was embarrassed by the showy decadence, but it was just the oppositeI wanted to keep the exclusive, honeyed sensation of the invitation to myself, lest I discover it was a mistake, or that every single mailbox held one. The gently nubbled paper stock kept my hand warm all day. When I returned to the room, I made sure to leave the envelope prominently on my desk, where Ev liked to keep her ashtray, just below the only picture she had posted in our room, of a good sixty peopleyoung and old, all nearly as good-looking and naturally blond as Ev, all dressed entirely in whitein front of a grand summer cottage. The Winslows’ white clothing was informal, but it wasn’t the kind of casual my family sported (Disneyland T-shirts, potbellies, cans of Heineken). Ev’s family was lean, tan, and smiling. Collared shirts, crisp cotton dresses, eyelet socks on the French-braided little girls. I was grateful she had put the picture over my desk; I had ample time to study and admire it.
It was three days before she noticed the envelope. She was smoking atop her bunkthe room filling with acrid haze as I puffed on my inhaler, huddled over a calculus set just below herwhen she let out a groan of recognition, hopping down from her bed and plucking up the invitation. “You’re not coming to this, are you?” she asked, waving it around. She sounded horrified at the possibility, her rosebud lips turned down in a distant cousin of uglyfor truly, even in disdain and dorm-room dishevelment, Ev was a sight to behold.
“I thought I might,” I answered meekly, not letting on that I’d been simultaneously ecstatic and fretful over what I would ever wear to such an event, not to mention how I would do anything attractive with my limp hair.
Her long fingers flung the envelope back onto my desk. “It’s going to be ghastly. Mum and Daddy are angry I’m not donating to the Met, so they won’t let me invite any of my friends, of course.”
“Of course,” I said, trying not to sound wounded.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” she snapped, before dropping back into my desk chair and tipping her porcelain face toward the ceiling, frowning at the crack in the plaster.
“Weren’t you the one who invited me?” I dared to ask.
“No.” She giggled, as though my mistake was an adorable transgression. “Mum always asks the roommates. It’s supposed to make it feel so much more . . . democratic.” She saw the look on my face, then added, “I don’t even want to be there; there’s no reason you should.” She reached for her Mason Pearson hairbrush and pulled it over her scalp. The boar bristles made a full, thick sound as she groomed herself, golden hair glistening.
“I won’t go,” I offered, the disappointment in my voice betraying me. I turned back to my math. It was better not to goI would have embarrassed myself. But by then, Ev was looking at me, and continuing to stareher eyes boring into my faceuntil I could bear her gaze no more. “What?” I asked, testing her with irritation (but not too much; I could hardly blame her for not wanting me at such an elegant affair).
“You know about art, right?” she asked, the sudden sweetness in her voice drawing me out. “You’re thinking of majoring in art history?”
I was surprisedI had no idea Ev had any notion of my interests. And although, in truth, I’d given up the thought of becoming an art history majortoo many hours taking notes in dark rooms, and I wasn’t much for memorization, and I was falling in love with the likes of Shakespeare and MiltonI saw clearly that an interest in art was my ticket in.
Ev beamed, her smile a break between thunderheads. “We’ll make you a dress,” she said, clapping. “You look pretty in blue.”
Three weeks later, I found myself standing in the main, glassy hall of the campus art museum, a silk dress the color of the sea deftly draped and seamed so I appeared twenty pounds lighter. At my elbow stood Ev, in a column of champagne shantung. She looked like a princess, and, as for a princess, the rules did not apply; we held full wineglasses with no regard for the law, and no one, not the trustees or professors or senior art history majors who paraded by, each taking the time to win her smile, batted an eye as we sipped the alcohol. A single violinist teased out a mournful melody in the far corner of the room. The presidenta doyenne of the first degree, her hair a helmet of gray, her smile practiced in the art of raising institutional monieshovered close at hand. Ev introduced me to spare herself the older woman’s attention, but I was flattered by the president’s interest in my studies (“I’m sure we can get you into that upper-level Milton seminar”), though eager to extract myself from her company in the interest of more time with Ev.
Ev whispered each guest’s name into the whorl of my earhow she kept track of them, even now I do not know, except that she had been bred for itand I realized that somehow, inexplicably, I had ended up the guest of honor’s guest of honor. Ev may have beguiled each attendee, but it was with me that she shared her most private observations (“Assistant Professor Oakleyhe’s slept with everyone,” “Amanda Wynmajor eating disorder”). Taking it all in, I couldn’t imagine why she wouldn’t want this: the Degas (a ballerina bent over toe shoes at the edge of a stage), the fawning adults, the celebration of birth and tradition. As much as she insisted she longed for the evening to be over, so did I drink it in, knowing all too well that tomorrow I’d be back in her winter boots, slogging through the sleet, praying my financial aid check would come so I could buy myself a pair of mittens.
The doors to the main hall opened and the president rushed to greet the newest, final guests, parting the crowd. My diminutive stature has never given me advantage, and I strained to see who had arriveda movie star? an influential artist?only someone important could have stirred up such a reaction in that academic group.
“Who is it?” I whispered, straining on tiptoe.
Ev downed her second gin and tonic. “My parents.”
Birch and Tilde Winslow were the most glamorous people I’d ever seen: polished, buffed, and obviously made of different stuff than I.
Tilde was youngmuch younger than my mother. She had Ev’s swan-like neck, topped off by a sharper, less exquisite face, although, make no mistake, Tilde Winslow was a beauty. She was skinny, too skinny, and though I recognized in her the signs of years of calorie counting, I’ll admit that I admired what the deprivation had done for heraccentuating her biceps, defining the lines of her jaw. Her cheekbones cut like razors across her face. She wore a dress of emerald dupioni silk, done at the waist with a sapphire brooch the size of a child’s hand. Her white-blond hair was swept into a chignon.
Birch was olderTilde’s senior by a good twenty yearsand he had the unmovable paunch of a man in his seventies. But the rest of him was lean. His face did not seem grandfatherly at all; it was handsome and youthful, his crystal-blue eyes set like jewels inside the dark, long eyelashes that Ev had inherited from his line. As he and Tilde made their slow, determined way to us, he shook hands like a politician, offering cracks and quips that jollified the crowd. Beside him, Tilde was his polar opposite. She hardly shook a hand or forced a smile, and, when they were finally to us, she looked me over as though I were a dray horse brought in for plowing.
“Genevra,” she acknowledged, once satisfied I had nothing to offer.
“Mum.” I caught the tightness in Ev’s voice, which melted as soon as her father placed his arm around her shoulder.
“Happy birthday, freckles,” he whispered into her perfect ear, tapping her on the nose. Ev blushed. “And who,” he asked, holding out his hand to me, “is this?”
“This is Mabel.”
“The roommate!” he exclaimed. “Miss Dagmar, the pleasure is all mine.” He swallowed that awful g at the center of my name and ended with a flourish by rolling the r just so. For once, my name sounded delicate. He kissed my hand.
Tilde offered a thin smile. “Perhaps you can tell us, Mabel, where our daughter was over Christmas break.” Her voice was reedy and thin, with a brief trace of an accent, indistinguishable as pedigreed or foreign.
Ev’s face registered momentary panic.
“She was with me,” I answered.
“With you?” Tilde asked, seeming to fill with genuine amusement. “And what, pray tell, was she doing with you?”
“We were visiting my aunt in Baltimore.”
“Baltimore! This is getting better by the minute.”
“It was lovely, Mum. I told youI was well taken care of.”
Tilde raised one eyebrow, casting a glance over both of us, before turning to the curator at her arm and asking whether the Rodins were on display. Ev placed her hand on my shoulder and squeezed.
I had no idea where Ev had been over Christmas breakshe certainly hadn’t been with me. But I wasn’t lying completelyI’d been in Baltimore, forced to endure my Aunt Jeanne’s company for the single, miserable week during which the college dorms had been shuttered. Visiting Aunt Jeanne at twelve on the one adventure my mother and I had ever taken togethera five-day East Coast forayhad been the highlight of my preteen existence. My memories of that visit were murky, given that they were from Before Everything Changed, but they’d been happy. Aunt Jeanne had seemed glamorous, a carefree counterpoint to my laden, dutiful mother. We’d eaten Maryland crab and gone to the diner for sundaes.
Meet the Author
MIRANDA BEVERLY-WHITTEMORE is the author of three novels, including The Effects of Light and Set Me Free, which won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for the best book of fiction by an American woman published in 2007. A recipient of the Crazyhorse Fiction Prize, she lives and writes in Brooklyn and Vermont.
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