F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby against the backdrop of the increased consumerism and materialism of the 1920s. The 2013 film adaptation found an audience perhaps because Fitzgerald’s themes continue to resonate. Almost ninety years after the book was published, materialism and the debt that comes with it seem so entrenched in our culture that it’s hard to remember that the American dream ever consisted of anything other than the accumulation of more and more wealth, more and more stuff.
Whereas Fitzgerald lamented the loss of the American dream, Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, in her new novel Bittersweet, seems to accept that the dream—and anyone who manages to attain it—is rotten to the core. The novel depicts the ultra-rich Winslow family and their idyllic summer compound Winloch, which is infiltrated by the lowly Mabel Dagmar, daughter of dry cleaners. It is something of a Great Gatsby for our time.
At the start of the book, Mabel finds herself in her freshman year of college rooming with the blue-blooded Genevra Winslow. With her parents struggling to make ends meet, Mabel grew up in a very different world from the one Genevra inhabits. She enrolled in college to make connections that would better her life, and she seizes upon the opportunity to make herself useful to Ev.
Mabel secures a coveted invitation to spend the summer at Ev’s family compound, Winloch, on Lake Champlain, naïvely believing that her association with the Winslows can free her from the dark secrets of her past. As Mabel explains, “I believed [Ev’s] family, beautiful and rich, would deliver me from the bitter knowledge of my own making.” A permanent place at Winloch, and the American dream it promises, are there for the taking, as long as Mabel can play the part she’s been assigned.
Beverly-Whittemore’s descriptions of Winloch are intoxicating, and it’s easy to see why Mabel would want a place there. Ev and her brothers, along with a smattering of her extended family, each live in their own cottages. (Ev’s is called Bittersweet.) There is a dining hall on the compound, and the main house, Trillium, sits on a peninsula with a 270-degree view of the lake; there is the sweeping lawn upon which the family hosts their annual performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; there is the beach and the forest, the boat docks and the flat rocks perfect for sunbathing. Describing a day on the beach drawing to a close, Beverly-Whittemore writes, “As the afternoon settled into night, the watchful mothers called their angels home, and the rocks took on a cocktail tone, smelling of bourbon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Camembert, permeated with a momentary, smudged happiness …” Mabel wants a permanent place at Winloch, and the reader wants it for her, no matter the cost.
In a letter Mabel pens to her mother but never sends, she writes, “no one here walks around with an imprint of a ring scabbed on their cheekbone,” hinting at the abuse she left behind. But there’s more than her father’s hand across her mother’s cheek that Mabel hopes to escape.
While both Gatsby and Bittersweet present us with characters striving to be accepted into wealthy society, the lessons they offer on the dichotomy between rich and poor are very different. The wealthy characters in Fitzgerald’s novel prove themselves to be callous and selfish, and Gatsby ultimately pays the price for his attempts to become part of their world. The Winslows are much worse than anyone in East Egg, and the roots of their family fortune and the unspeakable acts of violence perpetrated by Birch, the family’s patriarch, certainly provide fodder for current popular opinions about the super-rich. As much as we revel in the descriptions of their lives in paradise, we yearn for Mabel to destroy them. Beverly-Whittemore doesn’t go for such easy resolutions though, and ultimately the Winslows provide a critique not just on the wealthy, but on the entire American dream. In a recent interview, Beverly-Whittemore explained:
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about our culture of consumption; so many of us in the US are “the 1%” to the rest of the world. We take so much for granted; from our dependence on oil to the fact that we have clean water to drink! I hope a book like Bittersweet, while seeming like a juicy beach read, helps prompt readers to consider what we think we own and are owed.
Ultimately the Winslows are not necessarily scapegoats upon whom we can easily shift all blame for income inequality; their guilt is in fact the guilt of all of America, a realization that changes the ending of the book. While Mabel may appear to get what she wants in the end, the reader is left wondering whether that’s a good thing at all.
– Melissa Duclos received her MFA in creative writing from Columbia University, and now works as a freelance writer and editor, and writing instructor. She is a regular contributor to the online magazine BookTrib, and the founder of The Clovers Project, which provides mentoring for writers at various stages in their careers. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Scéal literary journal and Cleaver Magazine. Her first novel, Besotted, is a work of literary fiction set in Shanghai, for which she is seeking representation. She lives in Portland, OR, with her husband, two children, and Yorkshire Terrier, Saunders.