Review by: Mark Palm
The first time I laid eyes on Bitter Like An Orange Peel I was afraid that it was going to be the first in a long line of “the next” Gone Girls. I was wrong. Jessica Bell has something else entirely in mind. This slim novel is certainly not a work of suspense, though it did keep me on the edge of my seat for most of its length. Bitter is the slice-of-life story of three mothers Ailish, Eleanor, and Beth along with three daughters, Ivy, Kit, and Eydie. Most of the novel revolves around Ailish, Ivy and Kit with the others playing secondary roles. Ms. Bell follows their lives as the young women slowly decide to meet their absent father, Roger.
I not sure if this absentee father is to blame but the first two daughters seem to share a common trait of indecision. Kit falls desultorily into an affair with her neighbor and decides her career by playing “eenie-meenie miney-moe.” Ivy however is the pinnacle of indecision, from archeology student to drummer and barista to a museum employee. She starts out the novel defiantly single, but then reluctantly goes on a date with her admirer, Brian. They have a sexual encounter then move in together, separate, and she then meets and decides to re-marry her ex, Amir whom she meets on the plane ride back to re-unite with her half-sister as they go to meet their father.
Now the writing is solid and observant, but the present tense narration struggles at times in finding the right tone as it jumps from character to character. One of the minor characters, Gabriel, is such a cliché of a girl's gay best friend that I wasn't sure of it was a parody or not. In a story like this, where the ebb and flow of life is the subject, I didn't mind that the characters were inconsistent. People are inconsistent, and events do not go as planned. Now and again, though, I wished for a bit more authorial control and structure. Ms. Bell is a fine line-by-line writer, but the stories in Bitter more or less start, go on for a while, and then stop. The classic structure of beginning, middle and end is kind of there, but you have to search for it. Now when a work like this hits the jackpot the payoff is huge, but here I am afraid that I found it a bit hit and miss. I have to say that some people will really like this book and some won't. I must be feeling kind of indecisive as well.