In the latest from the author of Our Endless Numbered Days and Swimming Lessons, a dying woman looks back on a troubling summer 20 years earlier, in 1969, when her work researching the architecture and grounds of a decrepit mansion introduces her to an attractive bohemian couple that soon becomes her obsession.
Fuller...is a master of propulsive action, making the ground spin as each unreliable narrator takes center stage. Every measured sentence...builds on itself with the crumbling estate providing the saturated backdrop for this ultimately macabre tale. A distracting plot element or two notwithstanding, Fuller’s tale offers a gripping and unsettling look at the ugly side of extreme need and the desperate measures taken in the name of love.
Fuller, a skilled stylist, is very good at letting you get to know Frances by degrees and at describing a setting in which the ordinary rules of life feel suspended. She conveys the exoticism of a temporary new home and the eroticism of a temporary new attachment ... She keeps the suspense at such a low simmer—as if Anita Brookner had decided to try her hand at a potboiler—that you might be forgiven for wondering if, at times, the flame has gone out altogether ... Too much of Bitter Orange consists of two interesting, dramatic people doling out selective information to their undramatic listener; even as the noose tightens (and it does), you sense you could still slip out of it. It’s a tribute to Fuller’s abilities that even when her plot feels slight, the atmosphere she conjures creates its own choking sense of dread.
Bitter Orange explores the stories we invent in order to bear enormous pain or guilt. Fuller, who is also an artist, can be tremendously subtle, and our perception can spin on a single, dissonant detail: a stray hair on a pillow, a noise beneath the bath. Vivid visual images also build an oppressive, off-kilter atmosphere ... This sort of thing is so good that it makes the standard gothic tropes—a dead bird, a mausoleum, a ghostly face at an attic window—feel heavy-handed. The denouement slinks close to melodrama, and therefore feels slightly disappointing. But the real interest lies in the fascinating gaps and contradictions, the complexity of the characters and the thematic richness.