About this book
From the attic of a dilapidated English country house, she sees them — Cara first: dark and beautiful, clinging to a marble fountain of Cupid, and Peter, an Apollo. It is 1969 and they are spending the summer in the rooms below hers, while Frances writes a report on the follies in the garden. But she is distracted. Beneath a floorboard in her bathroom, she discovers a peephole which gives her access to her neighbours’ private lives.
To Frances’ surprise, Cara and Peter are keen to spend time with her. It is the first occasion that she has had anybody to call a friend, and before long they are spending every day together: eating lavish dinners, drinking bottle after bottle of wine, and smoking cigarettes till the ash piles up on the crumbling furniture. Frances is dazzled.
But as the hot summer rolls lazily on, it becomes clear that not everything is right between Cara and Peter. The stories that Cara tells don’t quite add up — and as Frances becomes increasingly entangled in the lives of the glamorous, hedonistic couple, the boundaries between truth and lies, right and wrong, begin to blur. Amid the decadence of that summer, a small crime brings on a bigger one: a crime so terrible that it will brand all their lives forever.
“Twenty years,” I whisper.
The memory of my first sight of Cara stirs me too: a pale long-legged sprite. I hear her shouting outside on Lynton’s carriage turn. I stopped pulling up my bathroom carpet and crossed the narrow corridor to the window in one of the empty rooms opposite mine. Below the attic windows, a lead-lined gutter edged by a stone parapet was packed with decaying leaves, and the sticks and feathers of ancient pigeon nests. Far below, Cara was standing on the fountain in front of the house. The mass of her hair was the first thing I noticed — almost solid with its dark, tight curls and centre parting, hiding all but a strip of her milk-white face. She was shouting in Italian. I didn’t know the words; the closest I have come to understanding Italian is the Latin names of plants, and even these have faded now. A test: Cedrus . . . Cedrus . . . Cedrus Libani, Cedar of Lebanon.
Three storeys below, Cara stood on the fountain, her bare feet balancing on the plump thighs of a putto. One hand gripped the robes of a stone woman as though she were trying to wrest them from her and the other held a pair of flat ballet pumps. I winced at the damage she might be doing to the already chipped and broken marble. I half-hoped that the fountain might be a Canova or one of his pupils. Cara was wearing a long crocheted dress, and I was certain even from my distance, no brassiere. The sun had nearly set on the other side of the house and her body was in shadow, but her head, where she tilted it back to look up, was vivid. I knew her already: hot-blooded and prickly, bewitching; a flowering cactus.
I thought she was shouting at me, up in my attic. I have never liked loud sounds, harsh words; I’ve always preferred the quiet of a library, and back then I couldn’t remember anyone raising their voice to me, not even my mother, although of course, things are different now. But before I could reply, although goodness knows what I would have said, the sash was raised in one of the stately rooms below mine, and a man — funny that my first sight of Peter was his hair — stuck out his head and shoulders.
“Cara,” he called to the girl on the fountain, giving me her name. “Don’t be ridiculous. Wait.” He sounded exhausted.
She shouted again, arms waving, mouth working, fingers pinching at the air, pushing her hair over her shoulder where it didn’t stay, and then jumping off the fountain into the long grass. She was always nimble, Cara. She came towards the house and went out of sight. Peter’s head vanished back inside, and I heard him running through Lynton’s empty and echoing rooms, imagined the dust rising and settling in the corners as he passed. From my window I saw him burst out of the front door onto the carriage turn just as Cara was pushing a bicycle at a trot through what was left of the gravel and simultaneously putting on her shoes. When she reached the avenue, she pulled up her and jumped on the bicycle like a circus acrobat jumping onto a moving horse, something I could never have managed then and certainly not now.
“Cara!” Peter called. “Please don’t go.”
We watched her, Peter and I, swerve around the potholes along the avenue of limes. Peddling away from us, she let go of the bicycle with one hand and stuck up two fingers in reply. It is difficult to recall the exact emotions for those early memories of Cara after everything that happened, I was probably shocked by the gesture, but I like to think that I must have also been excited by an anticipation of reinvention, of possibility, of summer.
Peter walked to the gates, eight feet tall and rusted open, and struck his palms against Lyntons 1806 coiled in the ironwork. I was puzzled by his frustration, had I witnessed the end of their relationship or a lovers’ tiff?
I guessed that Peter was about my age, ten years or so older than Cara, blondish hair flopping over his forehead, and a way of holding himself as though gravity, or the world, had got the better of him. Attractive, I thought, in a worn down way. Mother would have described him as the tiger’s eye. He shoved his hands into his jeans’ pockets and as he turned towards the house he looked straight up to my window. Without knowing why, since I had every reason to be there, I slid back into the room and ducked below the sill.
About the Author
CLAIRE FULLER was born in Oxfordshire, England, in 1967. She received a degree in sculpture from Winchester School of Art, but went on to have a long career in marketing and didn’t start writing until she was forty. Her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, won the Desmond Elliot Prize and was a finalist for the ABA Adult Debut Book of the Year Award and the Edinburgh International Book Festival First Book Award. She has an MA in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of Winchester and lives in Hampshire with her husband and two children.
Awards and Praise
PRAISE FOR CLAIRE FULLER AND BITTER ORANGE:
“A rich, dark pressure cooker of a novel that simmers with slow heat and suppressed tension.” — Ruth Ware, author of In a Dark, Dark Wood and The Lying Game
“Bitter Orange reminds me of so many novels I love, especially J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Claire Fuller is such an elegant writer and this book is incredibly atmospheric, vivid, and intriguing. I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn't reading a forgotten classic.” — Emma Healey, author of Elizabeth Is Missing
“Bitter Orange is a twisty, thorny, darkly atmospheric page turner about loneliness and belonging, a book that delves into its protagonist’s mind and heart even as she explores the secret-filled mansion at the novel’s centre.” — Gabriel Tallent, author of My Absolute Darling
“[Fuller’s] latest novel is seductive on the outside, but hidden within is a sinister story that considers the terrifying lengths people will go to escape their pasts . . . In the vein of Shirley Jackson’s bone-chilling The Haunting of Hill House, Fuller’s disturbing novel will entrap readers in its twisty narrative, leaving them to reckon with what is real and what is unreal. An intoxicating, unsettling masterpiece.” — Kirkus Reviews
“Bitter Orange explores the stories we invent in order to bear enormous pain or guilt. Fuller, who is also an artist, can be tremendously subtle, and our perception can spin on a single, dissonant detail: a stray hair on a pillow, a noise beneath the bath. Vivid visual images also build an oppressive, off-kilter atmosphere: in one room a vandal has taken a knife to the historic peacock-design wallpaper, slicing out each bird’s eye. This sort of thing is so good that it makes the standard gothic tropes — a dead bird, a mausoleum, a ghostly face at an attic window — feel heavy-handed . . . The real interest lies in the fascinating gaps and contradictions, the complexity of the characters and the thematic richness. It is rare for me to put down a novel and then immediately consider rereading it to see what cleverness I might have missed. This time, though, I am tempted.” — Sunday Times
“Fuller is impressive on physical detail . . . Her description of Frances processing down a rickety spiral staircase . . . is agonisingly well realized . . . And it’s not just the grand guignol that Fuller gets right, but the tiny details . . . She also has a talent for the sinister . . . Fuller is an accomplished and serious writer who has the ability to implant interesting psychological dimensions into plotty, pacy narratives.” — Observer
“This is an exquisite and skilfully written novel, which worms its way under your skin while Frances’s loneliness seeps off every page” —Red Magazine’s “This Month’s Best Books”
“Fuller is a master at summoning the atmosphere of a heady, hot summer that thrums with tension, and Bitter Orange is perfectly paced to keep you intrigued from beginning to end.” — Stylist
“We expect lemons to be bitter, but not oranges. We expect dilapidated country houses to be a bit creepy, and possibly the setting for a murder. We expect love triangles narrated by a less experienced woman to be a tale of innocence deceived. All the expectations are set up and subverted in Claire Fuller’s atmospheric and carefully constructed third novel . . . There are echoes of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between and Ian McEwan’s Atonement in this set-up, as there are of Anita Brookney’s many stories of deceived spinsters.” — Telegraph
“A dark Daphne du Maurier-reminiscent drama” — Stella Magazine
“If you’re looking for a sun-soaked domestic drama to keep you company on your own summer holiday, you won’t go wrong.” —Stylist
“Beautiful and sinister with a gothic thriller feel.” — Prima
“Fuller is an accomplished and serious writer who has the ability to implant interesting psychological dimensions into plotty, pacy narratives.” — Guardian
“This darkly smouldering, desperately sad, superior psychological thriller contains shades of Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal.” — Daily Mail
“Bitter Orange reads like an assured, old-school, du Maurier-esque classic. It’s an atmospheric page-turner that speeds us towards a bloody climax of shocks and surprises, and where boring old Frances reveals dark secrets of her own.” — Irish Times
“Like Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, Bitter Orange sings, enchants, haunts. If not for Claire Fuller’s stunning language and mastery of control, I’d have succumbed to the temptation to blaze through these pages just to see how the suspense resolves. A beautiful novel.” — Daniel Magariel, author of One of the Boys
“With the darkness of Patricia Highsmith, Claire Fuller’s Bitter Orange is a devastating read that delves into the darkest chambers of the frailest human hearts.” — Essie Fox, author The Last Days of Leda Grey
PRAISE FOR CLAIRE FULLER AND SWIMMING LESSONS:
Chapters/Indigo February Staff Pick
Amazon.com Best Books of February
Goodreads: 23 Highly Anticipated Books of 2017
Book Riot: 12 New Books for Winter 2017
Bustle: Most Anticipated Fictions Book of 2017
Nylon: 50 Books We Can’t Wait to Read
Elle.com: 25 Most Anticipated Books By Women
BuzzFeed: 27 Brilliant New Books You Need to Read This Winter
“Fuller’s Swimming Lessons is a master-class in prose . . . Fuller’s words are so exact and efficient in their storytelling . . . Stunningly beautiful . . . The elegance Fuller musters in such deliberate language is a feat. But the story itself is pretty genius all on its own . . . A novel that stands out.” — National Post
“Swimming Lessons is a complex puzzle box of a book, excavating darkly knotted family secrets, intricately cruel betrayals, and layers of ambiguous loss. Fuller is so clear eyed, poised, psychologically shrewd in the unfolding of her tale, you will be kept guessing until the final penetrating sentence. An extraordinarily smart and satisfying read.” — Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife
“Thrilling, captivating, sophisticated suspense.” — Sunday Times
“Assured, multi-layered, well-crafted, compelling, excellent.” — Mail on Sunday
“As she did in her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days (2015), Fuller proves to be a master of temporal space, taking readers through flashbacks and epistolary chapters at a pace timed to create wonder and suspense. It’s her beautiful prose, though, that rounds this one out, as she delves deeply to examine the legacies of a flawed and passionate marriage.” — Booklist, STARRED REVIEW
“Saving the best for last with revelations and surprises, Fuller’s well-crafted, intricate tale captures the strengths and shortcomings of ordinary people to show how healing is possible by confronting the darkest places.” — Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW
“Fuller’s tale is eloquent, harrowing, raw . . . [this] mystery is sure to keep readers inching off their seats.” — Kirkus Reviews
“Claire Fuller has captured love in its fullest form, nursed on betrayal and regret and guilt. Gil cheats on and abandons his wife too many times, until she disappears, leaving her clothing on the beach, and he can’t know even if she’s still alive. She leaves only letters, hidden in a great library of books, and he’ll search for her until his end. Swimming Lessons is so smoothly, beautifully written, and the human failures here are heartbreaking.” — David Vann, author of Aquarium
“Claire Fuller’s acrobatic new novel, about a family who has failed each other, inverts our expectations of narrative time to an astonishing effect: our experience of grasping for truth about those who have left is just as pained and urgent as her characters’. Fuller’s sentences are condensed maps of the human process, unfolding in patterns we immediately recognize.” — Kathleen Alcott, author of Infinite Home
“Swimming Lessons hovers in the electric space between secrets and connection, between the desire to love and urge to hide. This is a biting, soaring novel.” — Ramona Ausubel, author of Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty and No One Is Here Except All of Us
“Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons is a beautifully told literary mystery that weaves together the lives and loves of people defined by deceit and a questionable disappearance. Like her debut novel Our Endless Numbered Days, Fuller tiptoes brilliantly through delicate subjects.” — Joanne Berg, Mystery to Me
PRAISE FOR CLAIRE FULLER AND OUR ENDLESS NUMBERED DAYS:
WINNER, DESMOND ELLIOTT PRIZE FOR BEST FIRST NOVEL
FINALIST, AMERICAN BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION ADULT DEBUT BOOK OF THE YEAR AWARD
FINALIST, EDINBURGH INTERNATIONAL BOOK FESTIVAL FIRST BOOK AWARD
AMAZON RISING STAR 2015 (UK)
“Both shocking and subtle, brilliant and beautiful, a poised and elegant work that recalls the early work of Ian McEwan in the delicacy of its prose and the way that this is combined with some very dark undertones.” — Desmond Elliott Prize Jury
“This gripping tale will be well received by fans of survivalist fiction and psychological thrillers.” — School Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW
“The book is almost impossible to put down. Fuller weaves a hypnotic intensity of detail into her narrative that gives every lie the feel of truth, like the soundless piano with weighted keys that Peggy’s father painstakingly crafts out of a plank pried loose from the cabin wall. She and her father sing the notes as she plays the silent instrument, reading from a piece of Ute’s old sheet music. It's an elegant metaphor for the book’s heartbreaking central question: What’s worse — a mother’s absence or a father’s lies?” — Chicago Tribune
“Like Emma Donoghue’s Room, Fuller’s thoroughly immersive debut takes child kidnapping to a whole new level of disturbing . . . Fuller alternates Peggy’s time in the forest with chapters that take place [nine years later] in 1985 after she reunites with her mother — building an ever-present sense of foreboding and allowing readers to piece together well-placed clues.” — Publishers Weekly
“Fuller’s compelling coming-of-age story, narrated from the perspective of Peggy’s return to civilization, is delivered in translucent prose . . . This is a memorable first work from a talent to watch.” — Kirkus Reviews
“The saga of Peggy’s struggle in the face of prolonged trauma is vividly told, while Fuller’s careful pacing gradually reveals the mystery of a life that is as sympathetic as it is haunting.” — Booklist
“Standout debut . . . Don’t let this gripping story pass you by.” — Library Journal
“A post-apocalyptic debut with a twist. An obsessive survivalist abducts his daughter in this gripping family drama.” — Guardian
“Our Endless Numbered Days is inspired by fairy tales; the story’s menace is more Hansel and Gretel than that of a parent’s real-life horror story. Peggy, a young girl, is stolen away by her survivalist father to ‘die Hütte,’ a ramshackle cottage in a European forest, and tells her that the end of the world has come, that her mother has died and they are the only survivors . . . Fuller handles the tension masterfully in this grown-up thriller of a fairytale, full of clues, questions and intrigue.” — Times
“Fuller evokes the natural world's beauty and brutality as her characters endure nine torrid years in the forest and the novel reaches a sinister conclusion.” — Independent
“You don’t really know what’s going on in this surreal psychological thriller until the OMG-worthy denouement. Eight-year-old Peggy is kidnapped by her survivalist father, who tells her the world has come to an end and keeps her prisoner in a deserted cabin. The true horror of what happens to Peggy, a survivalist of a different stripe, emerges only in the final pages. Prepare yourself.” — Flare
“I finished this book and turned right back to the first page to start it again. Like the wilderness into which Claire Fuller’s characters disappear, Our Endless Numbered Days is rigged with barbs and poisons, tricks and tragedies. It’s weird and wild and sometimes terrifying, but it’s also beautiful and heartbreaking and breathlessly alive.” — Amy Stewart, author of New York Times bestseller The Drunken Botanist
“Graciously written and capriciously imagined, Our Endless Numbered Days holds up a magnifying lens to the human spirit and deftly captures both its fragility and its resilience. The brilliant ending, like the best endings do, casts new light on all that comes before it.” — Cathy Marie Buchanan, author of The Painted Girls