Bittersweet: A Novel

Bittersweet: A Novel

by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804138581
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 04/28/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 276,295
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

MIRANDA BEVERLY-WHITTEMORE is the author of three other novels: June; Set Me Free, which won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, given annually for the best book of fiction by an American woman; and The Effects of Light. A recipient of the Crazyhorse Prize in Fiction, she lives and writes in Brooklyn.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Roommate

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 armchair--something 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 leather--it 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 peasant--sure, 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 they--or at least my father--believed 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 opposite--I 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 people--young and old, all nearly as good-looking and naturally blond as Ev, all dressed entirely in white--in 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 bunk--the room filling with acrid haze as I puffed on my inhaler, huddled over a calculus set just below her--when 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 ugly--for 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 go--I would have embarrassed myself. But by then, Ev was looking at me, and continuing to stare--her eyes boring into my face--until 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 surprised--I 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 major--too 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 Milton--I saw clearly that an interest in art was my ticket in.

“I think.”

Ev beamed, her smile a break between thunderheads. “We’ll make you a dress,” she said, clapping. “You look pretty in blue.”

She’d noticed.

Chapter Two

The Party

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 president--a doyenne of the first degree, her hair a helmet of gray, her smile practiced in the art of raising institutional monies--hovered 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 ear--how she kept track of them, even now I do not know, except that she had been bred for it--and 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 Oakley--he’s slept with everyone,” “Amanda Wyn--major 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 arrived--a 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 young--much 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 her--accentuating 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 older--Tilde’s senior by a good twenty years--and 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 you--I 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 break--she certainly hadn’t been with me. But I wasn’t lying completely--I’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 together--a five-day East Coast foray--had 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.

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Bittersweet: A Novel 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 79 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Finished it the other night...still can't get it out of my mind. Would definately recommend. I read alot but rarely find a book that sticks with me like this one. I stayed up late a couple nights, I just didn't want to put it down! I can't wait for more from this author!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I received this book free in exchange for an honest review from Net Galley.  Thank you Net Galley and Random House for this opportunity!!! Definitely a YA book because it deals with two college aged friends.  However, as an adult I enjoyed it as well.   It is a GREAT beach read as most of the book is set on a lake near the Adirondacks in Vermont.  I felt myself falling in love with the scenery around there. That being said, I also enjoyed the story of a poor little rich girl, Ev  inviting her poor dorm mate, Mabel to her family camp for the summer.  A chance that Mabel jumps at ecstatically.   She had been dreading spending the summer with her family.   But, was Mabel invited to spend the summer for a reason? While spending the summer at Winloch, the name for the commune that Ev's family has had in the family for generations, Mabel learns a lot about herself and this somewhat eccentric family. A couple of events were predictable but in absolutely no way did they take away from the story line.   The final ending was totally unpredictable. I found this book to be very entertaining and once again, would be a GREAT beach read.   I recommend this book.
JodyJ More than 1 year ago
There is certainly plenty of mystery throughout the book with odd happenings and interactions among the characters to keep the pages turning on this nearly 400 page book. Interestingly, not all the mysteries were hashed out at the end of the book, leaving some open questions in my mind. It is not a book that left secrets open because there is a sequel coming - the epilogue pretty much assured that. It left me feeling slightly unsatisfied. Throughout the book, you spend your time trying to decide who's lying, but there's also the question of whether you care that they're lying, which is almost a bigger issue.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What a fabulous read!! Bittersweet is a beautifully constructed book, laying the groundwork of plot, characters and setting slowly, then picking up speed as things begin to happen, and finally racing off to an unpredictable and thoroughly rousing end. If you want to spend your time reading about sweet characters acting out a conventional story, this is not the book for you. But if you relish complexity--in both moral and narrative terms, and if you delight in gorgeous descriptions of a beautiful place, and want to be provoked into thought and discussion, this book is a winner. Yes, Bittersweet is over the top, but over the top in all sorts of delightful ways. Get ready for a heady ride!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I came across this book review in People magazine and cannot resist the tale of a rich family with skeletons in their closet. I found the characters to be interesting and although I figured out one plot twist early, the others came as nice surprises. The author really made me feel like I was spending summer in Vermont. I could, at times, feel the warmth of the sun and see through the narrators eyes. My only critisicm is that the ending felt a little rushed. Other than that I loved this book amd couldn't put it down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Bittersweet is this fantastic disorienting novel that will haunt you way past the time you finish reading. I found myself staying up all night just to finish in one sitting, so plan accordingly. We follow Mabel who, much to her surprise, gets invited by her roommate, Ev, to stay at her family’s summer compound. Mabel and Ev have a very complex relationship. Life becomes great for Mabel, but nothing is as it seems - making the title Bittersweet just perfect for the novel. With Mabel narrating the whole story, there are a lot of secrets to be revealed about Ev’s family. Just how far will Mabel go to keep the good life? The story has unlikable characters and this unrelenting tension you can just feel while reading. That may be why the book has received some comparisons to Gone Girl. Although this was my first from Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, she has certainly proven to be one fantastic writer. She successfully wrote the most original coming-of-age novel I have read in quite some time. The writing is just so unbelievably beautiful. The descriptions throughout are to die for. A setting is created that completely encompasses the gothic tone. This is definitely a story that will resonate with you. Bittersweet is a wonderful piece of literary fiction. A great beach read - just in time for summer! I’d recommend to fans of books about wealthy families with secrets, The Secret History, and just simply good mysterious books. I received Bittersweet for free in exchange for an honest review through the Blogging For Books program.
Lindz2012 More than 1 year ago
If you are looking for a mystery and secrets, you have come to the right place for you get a lots of that and history about the place. Though this book It start out in college and it really get more and to where you want to find out more. The family clan Winslows. There a all kind to find out. Things you will find out about Mabel Dagmar. Mabel want to be friends with her roommate and be a part of her. She find so family secrets that snows about and some Murders to go along with. You will not want to put this book down for you will find that their two boys that are part of the clan and when they do. you either be surprise or shocked or even just wanted to know more, g There is just so many things and if you like to head summers or history in cottages and for you may want to read it. I though the author had me guessing wanting to read more and I was stuck with this book in hand for a whole day reading it and I really did not want to put it down. .
RandomAmb More than 1 year ago
Bittersweet: an extremely well written, unique, intriguing, mysterious tale about family, wealth, corruption, evil, and love. When reading Bittersweet, I never knew quite what was coming next. When I formed expectations, I was often surprised by what actually happened. The one word that flashed through my mind over and over again when reading Bittersweet was ‘classic.’ I honestly feel like this book could be an American classic. It reminded me of The Great Gatsby early on, but it’s much more than a tale about wealth and greed. Bittersweet is at once unbelievable and believable–both unrealistic and realistic. It wasn’t at all what I expected, and I loved and hated it. Beverly-Whittemore’s characters are complex yet accessible. I rooted for Mabel, but I also despised her at times. Ev is very much Daisy Buchanan in my mind–I want to love her,  but she makes it difficult. I very much enjoyed this book, and it’s one that I will keep on my bookshelf forever. The cover is gorgeous, and the story still has my mind reeling [weeks later!]. Bittersweet may be a bit out of your comfort zone [as it was mine], but I urge you to read it. I’m sure it will leave an impression! [And isn't that what we want from literature?] If you like reading classics and stories about family greed and outsiders, this book is definitely for you. However, I would also recommend this book to anyone who enjoys good fiction. Bittersweet is intriguing, well written, and unexpected. Don’t miss it!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have read a lot of stories about dysfunctional families but, this was by far the worst. I won't be reading anything further by this author.
Beverly_D More than 1 year ago
Bittersweet, the word, is a taste, an emotion, a plant, and in the case of this novel, a cottage on a family estate, near the shores of a Vermont lake. Bittersweet, the novel, is also many different things wrapped up together. I received a free copy of this novel via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Mabel, the narrator, is a pudgy, asthmatic scholarship student with a troubled past, who finds a loathing-to-loving (think "Wicked," the stage play) college friendship with her roommate: slender, wealthy, privileged, Ev (Genevra) Winslow, of THE Winslows. New bestie Mabel is invited to spend the summer with Ev at Winloch, a huge private family estate where cellphones and e-devices are banned, but dogs are welcome (and abundant). Because of the absence of computers and the like, the Winloch scenes are almost dreamlike, with a this-could-be-any-era feeling, with cleaning the cottage, family dinners, swimming, and socializing the main activities. In the beginning, what Mabel wants (does she want Ev as a friend, or lover? Or does she want to BECOME Ev?) feels muddy, and the pacing feels slow, despite some hints that's all's-not-well-in-Paradise with the installation of multiple deadbolts on the Bittersweet cottage doors. Mabel is soon drawn into various family mysteries, and discovers some ugly family secrets, that someone - perhaps the entire clan - is willing to kill to protect.  There are sex scenes, explicit but not particularly erotic, IMO, and discussion of rape, incest, suicide... These all fit the story, and didn't bother me, but readers who find these issues triggering might want to avoid. The feel is summerlike and sleepy, AND Gothic and brooding, and whether Mabel will escape or be sucked into becoming one of THEM is not revealed until the very end.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you like incest, rape, and murder at the old family summer place, this book may be for you. Not to mention ridiculous situations and very unlikeable characters, as well as theft of works of art from victims of the Nazis. The prose is wordy and there are some grammatical errors. Don't bother.
18876111 More than 1 year ago
This book was definitely out of my comfort zone in terms of genre. I normally don't read thrillers or suspense novels. I loved this book. It was full of intrigue, excitement, and secrets. Eventually, those secrets are uncovered. There were some events that happened in the story that definitely caught me off guard and I was shocked by them. I also really enjoyed that this book didn't tell, it showed, that's how descript the writing is. I loved the character growth and development, I especially loved the relationship between Mabel and Galway. I would definitely consider reading this book again, but I would read it in the summer. It's definitely more of a summer read, rather than a winter read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Enjoyed it !
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is one of the worse books I have read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very good book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I almost didnt finish, after about 75 pages i put it down and read something esle, i am so glad picked it back up! READ THIS BOOK IT IS AWESOME
Virginiaw More than 1 year ago
This was not what I was really expecting when I started this book. It was so sad in a lot of ways. One believes that their family is messed up and then they hear about people like this. It can be hard to start college and live in a dorm. Getting to know your roommate is very difficult when you are each such different people. What happens to these two roommates (Mabel and Ev) is such a great story that will make you laugh and cry. Even in the end it is hard to dislike either girl or feel sorry for either. It is a fascinating story and helps you love your own family more. I received a copy of this book from Blogging for books for a fair and honest opinion.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
a very interesting book with several twists and turns!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Bookmom2 More than 1 year ago
This was just what I was looking for, a great beach book.  Easy to read and interesting enough to keep you up at night wanting to know how it ends. I'm looking forward to trying another Miranda Beverly Whittemore book in the near future. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not quite the Worst but certainly a light year away from the Best.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago