Mabel Dagmar, the seventeen-year-old narrator of Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s stunning novel Bittersweet is attending an upper-crust East Coast college on a scholarship. Her roommate, Genevra “Ev” Winslow is from an influential blue blood family. The two girls couldn’t be any more different and yet somehow Mabel finds herself invited to spend the summer at Winloch, the Winslow family compound in Vermont. Mabel has no interest in returning home to Oregon for the summer, so she gratefully agrees even though she has to help Ev prepare Bittersweet, Ev’s personal cottage, for her father’s “inspection”.
“…if we don’t get that little hovel in shipshape in less than a week, I won’t inherit it,” Ev tells Mabel on the train to Vermont.
Winloch is a strange out-of-time place comprised of an assortment of cottages and a communal Dining Hall set around a beautiful lake, inhabited by Ev’s immediate family including her parents, Birch and Tilde. It’s isolated and idyllic and Mabel is enchanted. This, she decides, is the life she wants.
Her visit to Birch and Tilde’s cottage only reaffirms her admiration:
Upon the honey-colored floor stood antique wood sideboards and a large mahogany table. An exquisite burgundy Oriental rug tied the furniture together, ending before a large fireplace sporting a brass fender and matching andirons. Canapes were arranged in colorful formations upon hand-painted porcelain platters: crab cakes and mini-lobster rolls and demitasses of chilled pea soup.
Even more impressive, the Winslow’s cottage boasts an impressive Van Gogh, “the most beautiful painting I’d ever seen.”
But there is also something slightly sinister about Winloch. For one thing, Ev installs bolts on the bathroom and bedroom door at Bittersweet. Then Mabel meets Indo, Birch’s sister, who enlists Mabel’s help in locating some important documents lost somewhere in the attic of the Dining Hall, claiming she’d been “looking for a friend like [Mabel] for a while.”
Mabel soon finds herself negotiating a landscape of shifting loyalties and strange tensions. It makes for compelling reading, that’s for sure; I couldn’t turn the pages quickly enough.
Although the bulk of Bittersweet takes place during that one summer, Mabel is actually remembering the events from a vantage point many years later. This will, in part, help explain why Mabel seems older than seventeen. Her own personal history, revealed in tantalizing snippets, will also help the reader understand her motivations. Bittersweet is Shakespearean in its scope.