It's easy for readers to empathize with a fictional character who wants to find love, solve a mystery or save the world. But a protagonist who yearns to be rich? That can be a harder sell.
And yet, for all our egalitarian ideals, the lure of the monied lifestyle is a theme running through American stories from the genteel world of Edith Wharton and F. Scott Fitzgerald to the cash-grubbing free-for-all of The Wolf of Wall Street. Wealth doesn't just serve our material needs; it appeals to our imaginations, too, which is why we can't merely dismiss all money-motivated characters as shallow.
Part-time Vermont author Miranda Beverly-Whittemore knows this well. Her third novel, Bittersweet: A Novel, is narrated by a college student named Mabel Dagmar who longs to escape from her lower-middle-class background into the rarified world represented by her freshman roommate, Genevra "Ev" Winslow.
Mabel's parents are dry cleaners; the effortlessly beautiful Ev "had come of age in boarding school and rehab." And hers is no upstart fortune; the Winslows — who casually donate a Degas to the college — are an American dynasty. Each summer they converge on Winloch, a bucolic compound on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain, where they dwell in cabins and observe traditions that involve dressing in white and performing Shakespeare.
Lest you speculate that the Winslows were inspired by the Webbs of Shelburne Farms, Beverly-Whittemore pointedly includes a scene set at that real Gilded Age estate: "It made Winloch look like the slums." Local readers may find themselves noting how the real Vermont dynasty has evolved and shared its treasures with the public while Beverly-Whittemore's fictional one clings to privacy and the past.
That adherence to tradition — rather than luxury per se — is precisely what allures Mabel about the Winslows. Invited to spend the summer with Ev at Winloch, she soon finds herself in a cottage called Bittersweet: "a quiet place, a country place, a place of baguettes and fruit and spreadable honeycomb, idyllic and sun drenched in a way I had never known, but of which I had long been dreaming."
It's inevitable, of course, that Mabel will find trouble in paradise. (To drive the point home, Beverly-Whittemore has her toting a copy of Paradise Lost to the beach.) The fickle Ev lies to her roommate, toys with her affections and disappears for days at a time, leaving Mabel to handle a forbidding paterfamilias, an ice-queen mom, a fragile younger sister and dotty, boho Aunt Indo. It's Indo who plays serpent, making Mabel an offer she can't refuse: If she can find evidence of some unspecified wrongdoing in the Winslow archives, the dowdy hanger-on might just end up inheriting a coveted place at Winloch.
If this sounds like a story that might be more at home in Wharton's America or at midcentury than in the world of cellphones and TSA searches where Bittersweet is ostensibly set, it is. Like Donna Tartt's The Secret History, with which it shares the outsider-seeking-entrance-to-the-elite premise, Beverly-Whittemore's novel harks back to a world where social prominence was assumed to go hand in hand with intellectual, moral and aesthetic superiority. It's an equation Mabel seldom questions, even as escalating evidence suggests that the Winslows are as depraved as they are undeprived.
Bittersweet has one foot in the literary realm of The Great Gatsby and the other in the page-turning gothic territory staked out by Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, whose frustratingly clueless narrator Mabel too often resembles. At times it feels like she's suffering from Stockholm syndrome, making excuses for Ev's increasingly poisonous behavior even as her supposed friend accurately warns her, "It's like I'm infected ... you should just stay away from me."
Hints of Mabel's unreliability as a narrator — and of a secret in her own past — never quite suffice to fill this void at the novel's center, where an active, compelling protagonist should be. The irony of the Paradise Lost references is that Winloch clearly isn't a prelapsarian world except in Mabel's head; in what sort of paradise does Eve have locks prominently installed on all her interior doors? The reader soon begins to suspect that Mabel misinterprets evidence and remains willfully blind to danger signs because of her overwhelming (and selfish) desire to "keep Winloch mine." Yet she herself never quite acknowledges the role she plays in her own deception and subsequent disillusionment.
If Bittersweet falls far short of its literary predecessors, it's still a highly readable novel full of plot twists and turns, secrets and scandals — a beach book for those who'd rather bask on Vermont sandstone than tropical sand. While at times it approaches the high-life melodrama of ABC's "Revenge" — without the humor — the novel has a consistent redeeming grace: the skill with which Beverly-Whittemore brings her setting to life.
Winloch's allure is no vulgar matter of "golden candlesticks and infinity pools," as Mabel notes scornfully; rather, "it's rustic in the way only a rich person's place can be, with money running under it invisibly, so that they get to pretend they're just like the rest of us." Long, languorous descriptions of the compound, closer to a classic Vermont camp than a McMansion, help us understand and even share Mabel's infatuation with the place.
In passages such as a montage of days spent on the beach (see sidebar), or the lengthy description of Mabel's sexual awakening with Ev's black-sheep brother, Bittersweet weaves a golden summer idyll around its readers, pulling us deep into its narrator's haze of youthful illusions. Money alone can't buy that kind of blissful indifference to harsh realities, but it sure helps.
My memory of the many afternoons I spent at Flat Rocks that summer is long and lingering, bound up with the reassuring sense of things always having been the way they were, and the belief that they would always be that way. As the afternoon wore on, more Winslows descended the steps, calling happily to each other, and I began to see the nonfamilial, simply familiar, connections between them, and understand that simply to sit upon the rocks and watch the world go by was essential to the definition of being a Winslow.
They liked to ride in boats: wooden canoes, rowboats, skiffs, dinghies, kayaks. Once the children were awake, someone — an uncle, a cousin — would take a few little ones out on the Sunfish to teach them to sail. Birch owned a Chris-Craft, a wooden motorboat from the thirties, with teak decks. [...]
Then there was the constant hubbub about the dogs: who had rolled in deer scat, who had disobeyed on the walk, who was a good girl, who could be trusted with the children, who should be taken back up to the cottage. All of Flat Rocks — all of Winloch, for that matter — became permeated, as the summer went on, with the rancid tang of canines living in a constant state of dampness — a smell I never could have imagined I could tolerate, and came to love.