Book Review: Bitter Orange – Claire Fuller

Bitter Orange - Claire Fuller

About 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.

My Review

I am a huge fan of Claire Fuller’s writing, I loved both Our Endless Numbered Days and Swimming Lessons and couldn’t wait to read her latest novel, Bitter Orange. Every novel of hers I have read has transported me elsewhere, from a remote cabin in a forest to a house on the coast filled with unread books and secrets and I have always been fully immersed in the worlds she creates. In Bitter Orange I was transported to the 1960s, to Lyntons, a stately home bought by a rich American who has commissioned Frances to research the follies in its grounds. It is here that she meets Peter and Cara, two people quite unlike any she has met before. It is a gloriously hot summer and one that will be life-changing for this unlikely trio.

This is a wonderful book which examines what happens when innocence and naivety combine with obsession. Frances is a compelling protagonist whose life until now has been filled as a companion and carer for her mother who has recently died. She arrives at Lyntons in the midst of a heat wave to find a house that has been ransacked by the American troops who were billeted there during the war. Ensconced in an attic room with minimal furniture she discovers that there is a spy hole in the bathroom floor allowing her to see directly into the bathroom beneath. This view into the Cara and Peter’s private space begins an obsession with the couple – their unabashed freedom, vocal disagreements and moments of tenderness and sensuality are intoxicating to cossetted Frances.

The heat of the summer oozes from the pages, it is sultry and sensual and ramps up the claustrophobia and tension. Frances is an unsophisticated and emotionally stunted woman who wilts under the charm of wild, exotic, otherworldly fragile and complicated Cara. It is during these hazy summer days and their developing friendship that the mystery, loss and love at the heart of the book comes into play.

This is a beautifully written book with gorgeous, gorgeous passages that convey longing and sensuality. I could see the house in my mind’s eye – somewhere grand and beautiful but on the inside crumbling and damaged – much like Cara. The writing is evocative and Frances, Peter and Cara are brilliantly drawn. Cara steals the show, but Frances is a compelling and intriguing protagonist and we see everything through her eyes. Her innocence and niaviety means that our initial assesment of Cara and Peter is quite narrow and we are forced to read between the lines. I loved trying to work out the puzzle, loved trying to second guess myself and work out if I really should be feeling unease. But, oh Frances. I could have wept for her and her unsophisticated ways. Her clothes are badly fitting, they belonged to her mother and are decades out of date – I could have wept for her. The contrast between her and Cara is striking;

She had wrapped her hair in a deep blue cloth, a high flat turban that emphasized her cheekbones. I thought she was enchanting. A sparrow or a dove, and me a guinea fowl

It is very hard to review this book without spoiling huge swathes of it as the plotting is so intricate and delicate that it slowly unspools like a thread revealing hidden secrets and mysteries to a stunning denounement. I was entranced by Bitter Orange, it is a book right up my street – mysterious, beautiful and lyrical prose with characters that leap from the page.

My thanks to Netgalley and Penguin Books/Fig Tree for a copy of Bitter Orange in return for an honest review, it was my pleasure. Bitter Orange was published on the 2nd August and can be bought here.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Bitter Orange – Claire Fuller

  1. I keep reading great things about this book this so I might give it a go. I’m a bit hesitant because I couldn’t get into Our Endless Numbered Days, but maybe I’ll like this one better!

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    1. Our Endless Numbered Days is a difficult one I think – I loved it but I know others who have struggled. Bitter Orange is very different in tone to OEND and sucks you in very, very quickly.

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