Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

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Claire Fuller: Bitter Orange

Published By: Fig Tree

Buy It: here

What The Blurb Says:

From the attic of a dilapidated English country house, she sees them – Cara first: dark and beautiful, clinging to a marble fountain of Cupid, and Peter, an Apollo. It is 1969 and they are spending the summer in the rooms below hers while Frances writes a report on the follies in the garden for the absent American owner. But she is distracted. Beneath a floorboard in her bathroom, she discovers a peephole which gives her access to her neighbours’ private lives.

To Frances’ surprise, Cara and Peter are keen to spend time with her. It is the first occasion that she has had anybody to call a friend, and before long they are spending every day together: eating lavish dinners, drinking bottle after bottle of wine, and smoking cigarettes till the ash piles up on the crumbling furniture. Frances is dazzled.

But as the hot summer rolls lazily on, it becomes clear that not everything is right between Cara and Peter. The stories that Cara tells don’t quite add up – and as Frances becomes increasingly entangled in the lives of the glamorous, hedonistic couple, the boundaries between truth and lies, right and wrong, begin to blur.

Amid the decadence of that summer, a small crime brings on a bigger one: a crime so terrible that it will brand all their lives forever.

What I Say:

Thank you to NetGalley for an advance e-copy of Bitter Orange in exchange for an honest review.

I kept seeing bookish people on Twitter raving about Claire’s new novel Bitter Orange.  After valiantly failing to get a printed proof via various competitions and offering to sell my children and dog, I was absolutely ecstatic to be able to access Bitter Orange via Netgalley.

So, what did I think?  Quite simply, Bitter Orange is one of those few novels that pulls you in from the first page, keeps you close throughout, and then leaves you feeling bereft when you realise you have finished it. I can honestly say that it is one of the few e-novels I have read, that I need to own a physical copy of as I want to read it again to really savour every page.

We first meet Frances Jellico as she lies on her deathbed, talking to Victor who is a vicar and her long standing friend.  As she meanders in and out of consciousness, she remembers her life, especially the hot and claustrophobic summer of 1969.

Frances has been commissioned to write a report about the follies which are in the gardens of the majestic Lyntons House.  She has left the drab and lonely existence she has in London, and is now facing a summer in an isolated and somewhat dilapidated country house as she undertakes her seemingly overwhelming task.

It is as she moves into her sparse attic room, that she meets the charismatic Peter and Cara, who are staying in the rooms below her.  Like Frances, Peter has been commissioned to write a report for the buyer of Lyntons House, and from the first time she meets the two intoxicating strangers, Frances falls immediately under their spell.

As she settles in to her attic rooms, Frances stumbles upon a telescope, embedded in the floor, which looks directly down into the bathroom that Peter and Cara share, which gives her an illicit view of the couple that she knows is wrong to look at, but can’t draw her eyes away – especially from their most private moments.

As the three strangers start to talk to each other, Frances notices that Cara seems to be evasive about her life before arriving at Lyntons, but is vocal of her love of Italy and its language, and Peter seems to be the stabilising influence she needs. Frances is a sometimes unwilling participant in their alcohol fuelled arguments, but is ultimately bewitched by her passionate and worldly wise neighbours.

The heat of the summer and the geographical isolation of Lyntons House mean that Peter, Cara and Frances start to gravitate towards each other, sharing food and free time and they begin to confide as to the paths which have brought them here.  One of the many wonderful things about Bitter Orange, (and believe me, there are many), is that Claire’s writing eloquently conveys the sense of them being almost out of step with the real world, living day to day, as they wish, with no routine or timetable, against the backdrop of a languid and all encompassing landscape that in reality seems to be closing in on them.

Life at Lyntons initially seems to suit all three of them, and very gradually, Frances starts to unwind and lose her staid and rigid routines.  She realises that she is becoming increasingly attracted to Peter, and as they get closer, he tells Frances in confidence that she shouldn’t always believe what Cara says, and that her mental state and recollection of events is at times precarious.

The balance of their relationships start to shift- Cara is now being watched by both Peter and Frances, Frances and Cara both love Peter, and Cara is becoming wary of Frances and her obvious attachment to Peter. One day, they stumble upon a door in the house which contains everything that the Lyntons owned – including furniture, crockery, china, jewellery and exquisite paintings.

Frances, Cara and Peter then make a moral choice about their discovery which will not only change everything, but will seep into the already tenuous cracks of their now brittle relationships.

Not one of them is innocent, and from this point onwards in Bitter Orange, the spell of their idyllic summer is irrevocably broken.

Day by day they start to turn on each other, uneasy and untrusting, loyalties are tested and secrets are revealed. This is what makes the characters in Bitter Orange so engaging – that Frances, Cara and Peter are flawed in their different ways, but ultimately they are just three young people, trying to find love and their place in the ever changing world that they will have to return to eventually.

Bitter Orange culminates in a truly shocking and unexpected ending, which is absolutely perfectly executed – and Frances’ deathbed confessions will, believe me, take your breath away.

Emma Healey, another of my favourite authors, has said that on reading Bitter Orange that she had to keep reminding herself that she wasn’t reading a forgotten classic. I would absolutely agree, and also add, that in writing the haunting and elegiac Bitter Orange, Claire Fuller has written a brilliant future classic novel that should be lauded and read as widely as possible.

I loved it.

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