Book Review: Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

Bitter OrangeAbout the Book

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.

Format: ebook (288 pp.)    Publisher: Penguin UK/Fig Tree
Published: 19th July 2018   Genre: Literary Fiction

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My Review

If ever there was an illustration of why three into two don’t go – because there’s always one left over – then Bitter Orange is it. Told in a series of flashbacks by a narrator whose memory (or truthfulness) cannot necessarily be relied on, the events of one momentous summer are gradually revealed to the reader.  Only towards the end of the book does the true nature of what occurred and its consequences become clear in what, to this reader at least, came as a startling revelation.

Arriving at Lyntons, Frances is friendless, the product of a solitary upbringing who has has spent recent years solely responsible for the round the clock care of her sick mother, now deceased.  She is immediately drawn to the two other occupants of the house who seem keen to welcome her into their lives.  However, the relationship between Peter and Cara is a curious one – at times, intense and passionate, at other times, fractious.  There are things about their relationship that don’t ring true or seem to be part of some sort of performance being put on just for Frances.  Becoming confidante to Cara, Frances begins to suspect the secrets Cara reveals to her may be either fantasies or beliefs she has convinced herself of in order to wipe out the memory of past trauma.

I loved how the house with its air of dilapidation, decay and abandonment became an unsettling background presence to the story being played out within its crumbling walls with their peeling wallpaper, under its leaky rooftops and in its expanse of overgrown gardens and neglected buildings.  It injected a real Gothic feel to the story, making Frances’ strange imaginings seem somehow possible.  A toilet flushing in the night, scary?  The author managed to make it so!

The book explores the idea of the need, indeed compulsion, to do penance for past deeds – both actions and failures to act – and how not everything is what it seems (like the bitter oranges of the title). As it turns out, small actions can have unintended and tragic consequences.

Bitter Orange is a beautifully written, compelling story of obsession, compulsion, guilt, regret and unrequited love.

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In three words: Intense, atmospheric, unsettling

Try something similar…The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton (read my review here)

Claire FullerAbout the Author

Claire Fuller trained as a sculptor before working in marketing for many years. In 2013 she completed an MA in Creative Writing, and wrote her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days. It was published in the UK by Penguin, in the US by Tin House, in Canada by House of Anansi and bought for translation in 15 other countries. Our Endless Numbered Days won the 2015 Desmond Elliott prize.

Claire’s second novel, Swimming Lessons, was published in 2017. It was shortlisted for the Encore Prize, selected as a Book of the Month book in the US, and a book club selection for You Magazine in the Mail on Sunday in the UK.  Bitter Orange is the author’s third novel.

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

  1. I absolutely adore Clare Fuller’s writing! Each time I think her book is getting off to slow start and by the end I am completely overwhelmed with the beauty of it all. Great review Cathy!

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