Bitter Orange
Claire Fuller
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Buy *Bitter Orange* by Claire Fulleronline

Bitter Orange
Claire Fuller
Tin House Books
320 pages
October 2018
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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The first time 39-year-old Francis Jellico sets eyes on Peter, she's attracted to him. He's intrigued by her, too, and she's delighted that this idiosyncratic, charming man seems so intensely interested in her. Unfortunately, Peter is with Cara, "a pale long-legged sprite." When we first meet her, Francis is in hospital, dying from some sort of wasting disease. Her only visitor is Victor Wylde, a local vicar who Francis met back summer of 1969 when she was staying at the Lyntons, a vast crumbling estate on the outskirts of an English market town.

Elusive American investor Mr. Liebermann wants Francis--an expert on bridges and garden architecture--to give her professional assessment of Lyntons. Balanced at the top of a green bank, with its ancient woodland, water meadows and rooms on the west side of the house offering a glorious view, Lyntons Estate is a feast for the eye with its ruined gardens, where the paths lay hidden under a Palladian bridge that crosses the lake. Mr. Liebermann has enclosed a key to the attic, where Francis spends her days looking out at the bridge "built for love and for assignations and for beauty."

Emboldened by Peter's newfound attentions, and with the light golden and green, Francis remembers how the sun shines at Lyntons. She mostly keeps to herself until she discovers a short telescope that extends up above the attic room floor. Francis can see Cara and Peter's bathroom from above--its rolltop clawfoot bath and scrolled sink--and from the grounds: the obelisk, the mausoleum and the grotto that leads to the kitchen garden. Every view from the house has been designed to create an idealized English landscape of vistas and open spaces, "framed by the dark rising hangers."

Fuller explores the thick complexity that lurks in the mundane. Francis walks the grounds, working hard to forget about the loose floorboard and the telescope. Ignoring Victor's warnings, Francis accepts Cara's dinner invitation. There Peter makes fun of everything and Cara confides in Francis about her Irish home called Killaspy, how she left her mother and eventually eloped with Peter. From the afternoons under the mulberry tree to their exploration of the Lyntons mausoleum, Francis begins to transform from a shy, awkward and plain woman to a woman "of bone and skin."

Who truly knows and understands another? Like Francis, we are like locked chests, filled with terrors we cannot share. In hospital, Francis remains obdurate and uncooperative, drifting on a "sea of memory, between islands of lucidity." As her attraction to Peter intensifies, Francis learns about Cara's past. What she doesn't know is that each scandalous moment or action was designed to be more outrageous:

I had imagined a simple love story, albeit complicated with a first life. But now here was a child that Cara had let go.
"Everything we have, everything we are, is created by the past." This quote reflects Fuller's major theme: a careful examination of grief that shifts between past and present. Francis embarks on a difficult assessment of the tragedy that unfolded in that bucolic summer of 1969. In a story about regret, Cara and Peter become Francis's cypher for showing her repressed life. No longer caring or thinking much about Mr. Leibermann's report, Francis is desperate to tell Peter about when she lived with her mother in London during those early years--the airless rooms, the boredom, the books, and the forced self-education. The tone of the novel, constantly thick with the scent of bitter orange, is like a symphony of poetry, with gently foreshadowed movements reflecting Francis' suffering.

From Peter and Cara's hazy, sun-dazed afternoons to the chillier present where Francis ends up questioning the very nature of their relationship, Fuller constructs an ending in which Francis must come to terms with her need for penance, a payment for using the "little lens" under her floor and for everything else. In the end, perhaps Fuller is asking, how does God know who is responsible for a crime?

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Michael Leonard, 2019

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