Marie’s Reading: “Bitter Orange” by Claire Fuller

91Qzwi5HkMLThere’s a very old-fashioned feel to this psychological thriller.  In style and tone Bitter Orange reads a bit like Patricia Highsmith or Shirley Jackson.  The writing is elegant and the mystery a hook from the get-go.  The perfect book to curl up with on a December evening!

Frances Jellico, elderly and nearing death, recalls the summer of 1969 in an old country mansion in England.  That summer she was at Lyntons to study the garden’s architecture.  A couple named Cara and Peter have taken the rooms below hers.  Soon Frances befriends the young couple, only to find that there’s a lot more to both of them than they let on.

Fran, middle-aged and lonely and clearly with a lot of emotional baggage, is giddy to have friends.  Cara, strange and beautiful, finds an easy audience for her fantastic and romantic stories in Frances.  And Peter soon becomes the object of a crush.  I like how, as the story continues, it becomes clear that Fran is hiding something.  You begin to question exactly how reliable a narrator she is.

The back and forth of the narrative adds to the tension.  You’re aware as you’re reading that some sort of calamity is going to happen, and that Fran is actively hiding details.  It’s the bomb under the table sort of suspense.

Fuller’s writing is incredibly rich.  She sets a lovely scene, and her descriptions are wonderfully immersive and evocative.  There’s a touch of the Gothic here, too, with the dark and sinister secrets and things going bump in the night at Lyntons.

If you liked The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud for the narrator and tone, give this book a look!  The Talented Mr. Ripley fans might find a lot to like here, too, as well as those who liked The Haunting of Hill House.

–Marie

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Marie’s Reading: “The After Party” by Anton DiSclafani

after partyA tale of friendship among the power set in 1950’s Houston, The After Party by Anton DiSclafani is filled with the detail of everyday life, and the details of a dysfunctional friendship.

At the center of the story are Cece and Joan.  Joan is the golden girl, Cece her handmaiden (she describes herself as a “lady-in-waiting”).  They’ve been friends ever since they were tiny, and as the years pass, Cece remains almost obsessively devoted to Joan.  Joan is always the party girl, the one who runs away and keeps secrets, the one constantly flitting from man to man.  Cece is the one who cleans up the messes Joan leaves behind.

The writing is simple but evocative.  DiScalani’s great strengths are with atmosphere and characterization.  The plot, such that it is, is secondary to the exploration of a very specific time and society (upper-class Houston in 1957) and the people who live in it. The relationship between Cece and Joan is especially well-crafted–it’s utterly believable in its one-sidedness, in the way Cece needs Joan so terribly (or has convinced herself that she does), and in the way that she feels responsible for Joan’s behavior.  Watching Cece try to evolve, to try to come to terms with the secrets she uncovers, and to overcome her past, is the backbone of the book.

For Cece, the life of a young housewife and mother, which Joan finds so stifling, provides protection, security, and identity.  Her struggle when caught between her husband and Joan feels very real and immediate.  How much of her hard-earned life is Cece willing to put on the line for Joan?  Or lose entirely?

The After Party is a great novel to kick off your summer with–filled with dynamic characters and lush scenery, simple but clear and honest writing, and a plot that’s full of secrets but ultimately second-fiddle to the people and their relationships.

–Marie