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Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

Tin House Books, 320 pages, $25.95 (2018)

There is a lot of fuss being made about “Bitter Orange.” (It made NPR’s best book list of 2018.) There should be a “girl” or “woman” in the title, because it’s that kind of book. You think you know, the author spends a lot of time making you think you know, but really, you don’t know.

Odd duck Frances Jellico was the sole caretaker of her housebound mother for a couple of decades. She was her mother’s physical and emotional prisoner. Frances is presented as a nice girl who follows the rules. She is plain, virginal, and socially naive, with a dissonant overlay of academic sophistication. After her mother’s death, Frances felt she still had a lot to give, so she took a temporary post to do an architectural assessment of the grounds of Lyntons for its new owner. Peter Robertson has also received an assignment to do an assessment of the interior and furnishings of the estate. Peter has come equipped with a woman, Cara Calace. When Frances first glimpses Cara, she is shouting in Italian and evinces a fiery temper. Later, Frances learns Cara is Irish and has a fiery temper. They are the inhabitants of Lyntons for part of the summer.

Fuller sets the stage. Here is Frances:

I am a voyeur, the person who stands at the police tape watching someone’s life unravel, I am in the car slowing beside the accident but not stopping, I am the perpetrator returning to the scene of the crime. I am the lone mourner.


It was so hard to get it right, the way other people had conversations, back and forth with no effort. I wondered, not for the first time, how it was done.

“Bitter Orange” is also a bit of a gothic ghost story. There was a tragic figure, the last of the Lyntons, to whom a tragic story was tragically attached. Cara claims to have seen faces of children in the windows. Frances hears sounds in the night and odd things happen; a pillow is left in her bathtub, for instance. (I know, a pillow. But Fuller makes the pillow sound spooky. Points for her.)

Cara begins to confide in Frances. She says she had a baby, Finn, but she no longer has Finn. Frances, not being an expert interrogator, wonders but does not ask why. Or maybe she is a polite Brit. In any event, it is half the book gone before the story puts on a little meat. Yes, Cara has a bigger story. Yes, Peter has a bigger story. And, yes, Frances, the narrator, has her own big story.

When the book begins, we are listening to Frances who is on her deathbed. She is being visited by someone named Victor, whom she must know, did know in another life. It is twenty years past the point of the main story, about Frances’ summer with Cara and Peter. So the book is mostly a reminiscence told by a grumpy old woman who is dying about a turning point in her life in the 1960s. 

This was the main question I had: Why did Peter and Cara seek out Frances’ acquaintance? They all stayed up nights getting drunk, laughing, singing along with 60s music. Charismatic couple Peter and Cara cooked for her, took her on picnics, were kind to her. Frances, in turn, adored Cara who was everything she was not. She fell in love with Peter. She was haunted by Lyntons. But Frances was socially awkward, shy, burdened by her past, plain, chubby, old-fashioned, rigid.

“Bitter Orange” is about the unmaking of Frances’ idea of Frances. It is a story about what the essence of Frances is. Mostly Fuller’s language is gorgeous. It made me hang in past the point where I thought it was becoming bogged down. From the middle of the book onward, it was about revelations and I was caught in Fuller’s storyweb.

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