Bitter is a novel that I heard a lot about around the time of its publication last year, and I was lucky enough to win a signed copy in a charity auction. Having read it, I wish I’d done so earlier – it might be the best book I didn’t read in 2018.
It’s 1969, and while the summer of love lingers in London, Gilda is consumed by the mistakes of her past. She walked out on her beloved son Reuben when he was just a boy and fears he’ll never forgive her.
When Reuben marries a petite blonde gentile, Gilda takes it as the ultimate rejection. Her cold, distant son seems transformed by love – a love she’s craved his entire adult life. What does his new wife have that she doesn’t? And how far will she go to find out? It’s an obsession that will bring shocking truths about the past to light…
Bitter is a beautiful and devastating novel about the decisions that define our lives, the fragility of love and the bond between mother and son.
Bitter is comprised of short, punchy chapters that alternate between 1969 and Gilda’s younger days, allowing the reader to see the person she is as well as how she became that person. In 1969, Gilda is in her early fifties, and desperately wants to be a part of her son’s life. Reuben has recently married, and has little time for his mother who hasn’t always been there for him. Desperate for some way to connect to her son, Gilda begins to stalk Alice, Reuben’s lovely young wife, and begins to intrude on their lives in other, quite creepy, ways.
I want him to love me too, to need me in his life like he needs her.
These chapters made me wonder how far Gilda was prepared to go – it seemed that she would stop at nothing to be a part of her son’s life, even fantasising that a child would bring them all together as they would become reliant upon Gilda for childcare. While the reader sees little of Reuben, it’s very easy to sympathise with Alice in these chapters, as Gilda’s increasingly obsessive behaviour made me distinctly uncomfortable, and it seemed that her meddling might be taken to extremes, with Gilda wanting to be a part of their lives no matter the cost.
The alternating chapters give a view of Gilda’s younger days, and it was through these chapters that I really started to sympathise with her character, despite seeing the person she had become in the 1969 timeline. Her parents weren’t affectionate, and she was shipped off to England at a young age before entering into an arranged marriage that suited her father’s business interests more than it did her. With the birth of Reuben, Gilda is filled with fear that she won’t be a good mother, that she will hurt Reuben, however unintentionally, as she doesn’t know what to do or how to look after him. Through these chapters, Gilda looks back at her life, and the mistakes she made.
These are the things that have been keeping me awake at night. The could-haves and the should-haves and the why-didn’t-I-do-thats?
Through some deep soul-searching, she can see where she went wrong, as well as seeing the wrong that was done to her, as it’s clear that she wasn’t wholly responsible, although some of her own choices did contribute towards her current situation. The question is, can she fix it, or is it too late for that?
The one constant in Gilda’s life is the long-suffering Margo. She is the person who has been there for her through everything. The two met at school, and Gilda views their friendship as charitable on her part, a friendship that Gilda allowed out of sympathy as Margo didn’t seem to have anyone else. Through all the ups and downs of Gilda’s life, Margo has been there, and it’s clear to the reader that Gilda needs Margo as much as Margo needs her, despite Gilda’s opinion on the matter. I think that Margo is the kind of person that we all hope to have in our lives – that friend who is there through thick and thin, who remains steadfast and supportive, whatever decisions we make, and whether those decisions are agreed with or not.
I thought that the time periods involved were evoked successfully. On the surface, Gilda and Alice couldn’t be more different, yet they are both captive to their respective times, with the expectations placed upon women made clear. While things are changing for Alice, giving her opportunities that Gilda never had, it’s clear that women are still very much considered to be homemakers first and foremost, and even though Alice isn’t as fully developed as Gilda, it’s easy to feel sympathy towards her character. She comes across as being as angelic as her appearance suggests, and willing to provide a link between Gilda and Reuben, if Gilda can swallow her pride enough to allow it.
Jakobi’s novel is, frankly, amazing, and all the more so for being a debut. Beautifully written, the portrait of Gilda as a flawed and troubled woman is incredibly poignant, and it is clear that she has lived a life with little happiness, leaving her sad and bitter at the way things have turned out. I raced through the pages desperate to discover if she finds the redemption she desires.