Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

Claire Fuller has a great feeling for places – forests, the sea and in her latest book, Bitter Orange, crumbling country mansions – it makes her books immersive experiences.

Bitter Orange focuses on Lyntons, a dilapidated English estate. Over the summer of 1969, Frances Jellico, a middle-aged spinster grieving the death of her mother, is tasked with documenting the estate’s garden architecture for its absent American owner – Frances’s specialty is Palladian bridges and she is looking forward to quiet days of sketching the treasures of Lyntons. 

Also staying at the property is Peter, the serious antiques expert, and his beautiful, tempestuous partner, Cara. Frances is intrigued by the couple and through overheard conversations and spying at gaps in the floorboards, she learns more about them – not all is as it seems but seduced by their friendship and their hedonistic approach to life – lavish meals, lazy days swimming in the lake, cigarettes and martinis on the terrace, sleeping until noon – Frances soon becomes entangled in their life.

…she thanked me for listening, and I saw it was that easy, that was all I had to do to make a friend…

Fuller’s use of unreliable narration in Bitter Orange is beautifully restrained and gothic details – dead animals in the house, footsteps heard in empty passageways, rotting fruit in the exquisite orangery – give the story a dark edge. A sense of unease hums through every scene and Fuller maintains the tension until the very end. But while I enjoyed the plot twists, the motivation behind some elements of the story were not wholly convincing and I wondered if in creating three very strong characters, Fuller had given herself too great a task.

That said, the character of Frances was terrific –  her uncertainty, her ever-so-slight bitterness, her prudishness and then her summer transformation – it was like Anita Brookner Gone Wild.

She reached out until her fingers touched my face, and told me I was beautiful. I was thirty-nine when I sat on the jetty, and in my whole life no one had ever said I was beautiful. Later,…I leaned over the green water of the lake and was disappointed to see that my reflection hadn’t changed…

But the star of Bitter Orange is Lyntons – the rambling gardens, the overgrown orangery, rotting secret doors, dark cellars, wardrobes full of forgotten furs, echoing ballrooms… surely the movie rights to this book have been snapped up?

3/5 Don’t over-think it, just enjoy.

I received my copy of Bitter Orange from the publisher, Penguin Books UK, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Cara is an extravagant cook, making tagliatelle al limone for their first meal with Frances-

She pronounced tagliatelle al limone and pasta like an Italian. I’d never eaten pasta, but I knew it was served in dark Soho restaurants, the kind I’d walked past but never dared enter.

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7 responses

  1. I think that by 1969 the only ‘pasta’ I’d eaten was Kraft macaroni cheese. Learnt spag.bol. at uni, sophistication came (much) later. Sounds like the English experience was much the same.

  2. First of all, why are your covers always better than the American version?! I love this cover!

    Thank you for this review. I adored Endless Numbered Days so the bar is high. I had friends who gave up on this book, but seeing your rating and explanation I want to read it. I love her writing so if that is still there, I can ignore plot weaknesses.

    • The writing is still there so you won’t be disappointed on that count. I think my favourite of hers was Swimming Lessons because there was a book theme and a swimming theme!

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