Bittersweet, the newest novel by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, is about a difficult friendship between two college-aged girls. The experience of writing the book inspired Beverly-Whittemore to launch the website Friendstories.com, where women share their stories about their own girlhood friendships. This universal theme, combined with its suspense and dark secrets make Bittersweet a must-read for summer.
When Mabel Dagmar befriends her blue-blooded college roommate, Genevra Winslow, and is invited to spend the summer at Ev’s family’s compound on Lake Champlain, she believes she’s found the secret to escaping her dark past. But the Winslows have their own family secrets to keep, and ultimately Mabel must decide whether to keep their secrets and her place within their paradise, or reveal them and be expelled. Bittersweet asks how far any of us might go to get what we want. I recently interviewed Beverly-Whittemore about the book and its central themes.
Q. Bittersweet is a gripping novel with several mysteries the reader wants solved. At the same time, the plot seems to develop out of Mabel’s character and her particular backstory; she’s driven to do the things she does in part because of the baggage she carries. Where did this story start for you: With the Winslows and their secrets or with Mabel and her quest to belong?
A. The Winslows first came to me in a furious clamor, chattering about cousin Jackson’s suicide—they just started talking to me about him one day. I was thrilled and horrified by their prurience. After that, the Winslows grew, as a tribe. I realized they were inextricably linked to their lakeside retreat, that their secrets had come to flourish because of that place. And that in order for their secrets to function, the Winslows required someone like Mabel—someone on the outside, gazing in—to be their witness.
Meanwhile, Mabel has always been kind of rattling around in my mind, since long before I conceived of the Winslows. So perhaps she came first. I think many of us “smart” girls have a Mabel in us—a cynical observer who’s very aware of all the ways in which she is not cool. From the beginning, I knew the girl had some dark secrets, but I let them grow organically as I wrote—she kept her cards close, and didn’t reveal them to me until late in the game.
Q. The research that Mabel does into the Winslows before she arrives at Winloch lends the book an air of historical accuracy. What was your inspiration for this family and their compound?
A. The place where Bittersweet is set is based on where my grandparents’ home is, up on Lake Champlain. My grandparents’ land was once part of a much larger family plot owned by a Vermont family, whose descendants still own acreage and cottages dotting the same bay. These descendants are lovely people, and nothing like the nefarious Winslows, but when I was 6, and my parents and I moved back to the US and into my grandparent’s house after three years in a rural Senegalese village, I went through a hugely depressing culture shock. Looking back on writing Bittersweet, I can see that I borrowed that feeling of isolation for Mabel. Winloch is a paradise, but one she has to make her own in order to truly belong there.
Q. Mabel carries Milton’s Paradise Lost with her throughout the book, though she never manages to read very much of it. Why did you choose this book for her?
A. I first read Paradise Lost when I was at Vassar College; like Mabel, I was an Oregon girl trying to make my way at an elite private institution. I had this brilliant professor who made Milton accessible and immediate, and I can still remember when she explained the idea that the world we live in now is post-lapserian, the world made by Eve when she ate of the apple.
For many years since then, I’ve wanted to write about a lapse—about someone who finds herself in paradise but can’t leave well enough alone, and who, by her innately curious nature, ends up being the paradise’s undoing. Of course, what happens after a lapse is the interesting, juicy stuff of life; no one wants to lie around in paradise all day (we think we do, but eventually it gets boring)!
Also, I loved the character work it did to have Mabel just expect she’s going to breeze through Paradise Lost on her vacation! That’s who she is when she first comes to Winloch; she can’t relax.
Q. Hearing women’s reactions to the tempestuous friendship at the center of Bittersweet, you were inspired to launch the website Friendstories.com, where you publish real women’s stories of their girlhood friendships. What have you learned about friendship in the time since you started this book?
A. It was when I started talking to people about the central friendship in Bittersweet—between Mabel Dagmar and Ev Winslow—that I realized just how strongly girlhood friendships stick with grown women. I mean, I’d certainly felt how robustly my girlhood friendships resonated inside of me, but I didn’t think much about what a universal experience that was until women started reacting to news of my book with stories of their own childhood best friends. Those early loves are our first stab at romance; it’s where we discover who we want to be and who we want to love. FriendStories.com has been a fabulous adventure—I’ve loved receiving accounts of these relationships from women of all walks of life. And I hope readers of Bittersweet (and of this Q & A) will continue to contribute.