As someone who thinks that likeability is a much overrated quality in a protagonist (particularly a female one) Bitter is a joy to read.
It is 1969. Gilda Meyer’s son, Reuben, is getting married to Alice, a blonde, petite Gentile – a woman who is everything Gilda is not. Gilda feels ill at ease at the wedding (she wore white and the dress was too tight) and finds fault with everyone there.
Reuben grew up with his father after their divorce and she has never been close to her son. When he looks at Alice, Gilda sees a side he has never shown her – one that is warm and loving.
Gilda becomes increasingly obsessed with Reuben and Alice, and her behaviour as a result is both comical and disturbing.
Gilda’s ‘present’ is interspersed with her memories of the past, from her affluent but unloving childhood in Hamburg, to her abrupt move to London and her marriage. She says at one point she feels guilty because she hasn’t suffered as a German Jew in the way people expect, she can’t tell them the stories they want to hear. Her unhappiness is small, domestic. Even in this she is someone who doesn’t quite fit.
One of the beauties of the first-person narration is that we are in thrall to Gilda’s voice. (And it’s a wonderful voice, the prose is so crisp and clear you hardly feel you’re reading at all.) We are left in some uncertainty about, for example, whether Reuben is indeed blameless for the difficulties in their relationship.
It also makes us complicit. Gilda does some shocking things but we are so wrapped up in her reasoning we don’t just sympathise, we want her to win through. We can also laugh at her sly barbs even as we know they’re unkind.
One of the most moving elements of the book for me was Gilda’s friendship with Margo. They were brought together at school by their shared unpopularity, but somehow the bond has endured. Gilda is frequently dismissive, and at times you think they are united only by expediency. Gilda exploits Margo’s kindness, but at the same time, Margo has a strength and self-sufficiency that shines through. (Gilda’s tone-deafness to Margo’s private life is also nicely done.)
The other significant woman is of course Alice, who has many of the qualities expected of a woman and a wife which Gilda lacks – her looks, her culinary skills, her willingness to please. She not only has the love of Reuben, which Gilda longs for, but she embodies everything that Gilda has failed to be.
The title of the book comes from the nickname foisted on Gilda at her British boarding school when one day she inadvertently said the German ‘bitte’ instead of ‘please’. This duality sums up Gilda. She repels people with her sharpness while desperately longing for them to come close.
Is she an unpleasant individual, a victim of circumstance, or a woman being punished for choosing her own path? I’m still wondering about Gilda, even now. A book to savour.
I received a copy of Bitter from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Bitter on Goodreads
Francesca Jakobi will be talking about Bitter at Jewish Book Week on 3 March.