Bitter Orange is Claire Fuller’s third novel and it’s the third I’ve reviewed here. Our Endless Numbered Days made it on to my books of the year list in 2015 and I included Swimming Lessons on my (then) Baileys prize wish list last year. I’m something of a fan, as you can tell, so expectations were a tad high for her new one but I’m glad to report that Fuller has outdone herself. Set largely during the summer of 1969, Bitter Orange tells the story of three people thrown together by circumstance, two of whom have been commissioned to write a report on a dilapidated, abandoned English country mansion. As the summer wears on, an intimate friendship develops but who is telling the truth and who is not?
Fran lies on her deathbed recalling her summer at Lyntons twenty years ago. In 1969, just a few months after the domineering mother she had cared for most of her life had died, Fran was commissioned to survey the garden at Lyntons for its American owner. From her bare attic bedroom she watches two people caught up in disagreement: Peter whose job is to survey the house’s interior and his partner Cara, vividly alive and apparently Italian, or so Fran thinks. Fran barely sees either of these two for days until she’s invited to dinner by Cara, arriving trussed up in her mother’s formal wear to find Cara and Peter in déshabillé, no signs of dinner in preparation. Lonely, socially awkward and naïve, Fran assumes these two to be deeply in love but as she’s pulled into their orbit, listening to Cara’s story of how they got together then finding herself Peter’s confidante about Cara’s instability, Fran begins to wonder what the state of their relationship really is and increasingly drawn to Peter. Slowly but surely tensions rise.
Fuller sets her readers up for an absorbing but suspenseful read, throwing up questions at every turn while spilling clues and foreshadowing the future. Fran is a satisfying narrator, hinting at unreliability by telling us that her illness has destroyed her memory but that the events of 1969 are clear and vivid to her. She’s an expertly drawn character: a self-proclaimed voyeur, an outsider ripe for the intimate seduction of friendship that Cara seems to offer. Fuller treats us to a luxuriously long reveal which suits the novel’s vividly evoked sultry heat well, delivering a satisfying climax at its end. I would have enjoyed Bitter Orange whatever the weather but it turned out to be the perfect read for the early days of July when the UK was in the grips of a heat wave which looks set to make a reappearance.