Beneath A Picture Perfect Surface

Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

Release Date: May 13, 2014
Publisher: Random House | Crown Publishing
Pages: 400 pages
Source & Format: NetGalley; e-ARC
Amazon | Goodreads

Summary (from Goodreads)
Suspenseful and cinematic, Bittersweet exposes the gothic underbelly of an American dynasty, and an outsider's hunger to belong.

On scholarship at a prestigious East Coast college, ordinary Mabel Dagmar is surprised to befriend her roommate, the beautiful blue-blooded Genevra Winslow. Ev invites Mabel to spend the summer at Bittersweet, her cottage on the Vermont estate where her family has been holding court for more than a century; it's the kind of place where swimming boldly is required and the children twirl sparklers across the lawn during cocktail hour. Mabel falls in love with the midnight skinny-dips, the wet dog smell lingering in the air, the moneyed laughter carrying across the still lake, and before she knows it, she has everything she's ever wanted: wealth, friendship, a boyfriend, and, most of all, the sense, for the first time in her life, that she belongs.

But as Mabel becomes an insider, she makes a terrible discovery, which leads to shocking violence and the revelation of the true source of the Winslows' fortune. Mabel must choose: either expose the ugliness surrounding her and face expulsion from paradise, or keep the family's dark secrets and redefine what is good and what is evil, in the interest of what can be hers.

Thoughts on Bittersweet
Y'all, this book shocked me. I know that's a weird place to start a review, but I can't think of how else to begin. I finished this book over the weekend and needed a few days to let it settle in my mind before I could really write anything about it. And I'm honestly still struggling to think about how to put my feelings into words... and to wrap my mind around what I just read.

Since there is that gothic mystery element to the book, I don't want to spoil a single thing for you. Here's what you need to know: Mabel Dagmar is a little in awe of her roommate, Genevra Winslow. Ev is gorgeous and wealthy, two things that Mabel is not and will probably never be. All Mabel wants is to belong to the Winslows, so she's thrilled when Ev invites her to spend the summer at their Vermont estate. It's a place where the family's Old Money is apparent around every corner. But there is an ugliness  below the surface that Mabel's presence may soon expose...

I've never done this before, but I feel the first line of this book's summary just perfectly encapsulates what you need to know about the book: Suspenseful and cinematic, Bittersweet exposes the gothic underbelly of an American dynasty, and an outsider's hunger to belong. Seriously, that description is absolutely spot on. So, I'm going to break my review down into those four elements.

1. "suspenseful"
Suspenseful is definitely the right word to describe Bittersweet! There are hints that things are amiss from early on in the novel, and Beverly-Whittemore begins dropping little details that give the story an air of mystery. You know that everything isn't as it appears, but you can never fully put your finger on what's going on. In a novel like this, it's almost impossible to talk about the plot without spoiling anything, but I can absolutely say that the tone that is evoked is so right for this story.

It took me a few chapters to really begin to lose myself in the story, but there was definitely a point at which I was totally hooked. I had to know what was going on! The best thing about a book being suspenseful is that you're excited but also tense from the unpredictability of it all. It's not something that's scary necessarily - just that feeling of nervous anticipation that can make for such great reading.

2. "cinematic"
Let me just say - Miranda Beverly-Whittemore knows how to paint a scene and a setting! As many secrets as this place holds (and as dark and twisted as those secrets are), I still wanted to visit this Vermont estate, Winloch. The place absolutely comes alive on the page, and I could totally picture it in my mind. It seems like this idyllic retreat - a place separate from the world and untouched by all its horror.

The setting was like a character all on its own. The lake, the battered cottages, the incredible dinners... There's something about this setting that just captures your attention and won't let you go! As much as you're aware of something beneath the surface, it's still so easy to lose yourself in the picturesque qualities of this place. In fact, as crazy as this sounds, I kept being surprised that this book was set in the present day. Everything about Winloch seemed so removed from the modern world that I was taken aback when reality intruded.

3. "exposes the gothic underbelly of an American dynasty"
Oh goodness. I can say the least about this point, but it's still important to note. The Old Money feel and the idea of an American dynasty permeates this book, so it's fascinating to find out that this picture perfect family may not be all that they seem. Mabel's invitation to summer there is precipitated by one of Ev's cousins committing suicide, which is one of the first hints that things are amiss with the Winslows. As you meet the extensive family, you'll see even more that there are always things going on behind-the-scenes that you can't see from the outside looking in. Mabel's tentative but persistent attempts to uncover this family's secrets will have you frantically turning the page!

4. "and an outsider's hunger to belong."
Finally, there's the relationship dynamics between the characters. Mabel is truly an outsider here, but she begins to feel like maybe she could belong. She wants, desperately, for it to be true. Watching her conflicted emotions - trying to fit in while constantly being reminded that she never will - made for such interesting reading. And just when you start feeling sympathy for her (or for any of the characters), things happens that make you reevaluate all those thoughts. Is anyone reliable or trustworthy? You'll have to read and find out!

Listen, this isn't a happy read. One secret in particular is quite disturbing, but the sense of foreboding creates a darker tone from the very beginning of the book. And yet I still really enjoyed reading this story! As unenjoyable as aspects were, Bittersweet was written in a way that had me riveted. I think this book would be perfect for fans of gothic mysteries or people who enjoy suspenseful stories, unreliable narrators or secrets lurking beneath a picture perfect surface.

So Quotable
"The truth is a noble grail to seek. But if you're after it, you must imagine, first, what it will mean to get it. The truth is neither good nor bad. It is above evil. Above morality. It doesn't offer anything besides itself."
*I received a copy of this book from Crown Publishing in exchange for an honest review. I was not compensated in any way for my review.


  1. WOW! Girl, this is an amazing review and you have totally sold me into buying this book. I saw a review for it in People Magizine, where they gave it 4 1/2 Stars, so I was curious about it to begin with. Certainly after reading this review, I'm 100% sure that I'm going out tonight and getting it. *fingers crossed hubby gets home early)
    If it's anything like you say it is, maybe I'll get done with it over the weekend, then we can discuss :)
    Thank you so much for sharing Hannah!! Great Job!
    Michelle xoxo @ Book Hangovers

  2. I love gothic mysteries and family secrets in books -- I have a ARC of this too I really need to read & review it soon -- when Bout of Books is over :)

  3. I actually really like shocking and surprising books.


    Also, sometimes adult books.

  4. Bittersweet sounds like the sort of sweeping, dramatic adult novel that I do enjoy sometimes! I love that it appears to have a mysterious angle, as well as tackling relationships (family or otherwise) and that the setting seems to be portrayed extremely well. I'm pretty thrilled that you enjoyed this one too, as it's the second positive review I've seen for it! Definitely borrowing it from the library :)


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