Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s intriguing third novel, Bittersweet, takes the reader inside the glamorous world of the super-wealthy, where everything is not as it seems, and dark, long-buried family secrets gradually make their way to the surface.
The narrator is Mabel Dagmar, a scholarship student at an unnamed but prestigious East Coast college, who is surprised when her decidedly upper-crust roommate, Genevra “Ev” Winslow, invites her to spend the summer at Winloch, a secluded group of “cottages” nestled along the shores of Lake Champlain. Like her siblings, Ev was given a wildflower-named cottage of her own when she turned 18, Bittersweet. Mabel describes this rustic yet luxurious retreat as “a place of baguettes and fruit and spreadable honeycomb, idyllic and sun-drenched in a way I had never known.”
Ev’s great-great-grandfather, who died in 1931, bought Winloch, which multiplied along with the family over the generations into 30 cottages occupying the two miles of Lake Champlain shoreline. By the third week in June the Winslow tribe—Ev’s father, Birch, mother Tilde, siblings and a bevy of aunts, uncles and cousins—descend on Winloch “like bees to the hive.” Two of Ev’s older brothers are married with children; the third, Galway, is the family misfit—he works for an immigration advocacy group in Boston rather than immersing himself in the Winslow finances.
Mabel slips easily into this life of cocktails on the lawn of Trillium, the “manor house” occupied by Birch and Tilde. She skinny-dips off the shore’s secluded rocks and launches a romantic relationship with the mysterious Galway. But gradually Mabel detects some weaknesses beneath the Winslow veneer, eventually leading her to question how the family managed to accumulate such wealth while the rest of the country was mired in the Depression. And she ferrets out some shocking secrets about Birch as well—secrets which sever the strands keeping this apparently unshakable family together.
Beverly-Whittemore’s saga delves into soap-opera territory at times, but its strength lies in its elements of mystery. The result is a page-turner that will keep readers guessing until the end.