Bitter by Francesca Jakobi
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.
This literary novel takes you right into the heart of 1969 and the mind of Gilda, which is not always a nice place to be.
Gilda is such an unusual protagonist, at times I quite liked her. Yet at others I found her behaviour and obsession quite disturbing. Whatever you think of Gilda good or bad, she dominates your thoughts for the entirety of the read!
The novel opens at the wedding of Gilda’s son Reuben to his beloved Alice. Gilda is on edge at the wedding. I couldn’t quite fathom if Gilda is uncomfortable at this wedding, or in her own skin. I was soon to learn the answer is both!
I felt quite sorry for her at the wedding, having to put up with the sight of her ex-husband Frank and Rueben’s stepmother Berta. Especially when guests complimented Berta on what a fabulous son she has raised etc. There is something that told me, there was more to Gilda than meets the eye!
Yet it is at her own son’s speech at which her internal thoughts rage. . .
‘He says she taught him how to love; that she taught him what love could be. And I can’t look at him because he didn’t learn about love from me’ – Gilda
The bond between mother and son is infinitely complex and can be fundamental to the man, that will grow from the boy. Various psychologists have studied the bond between parent and child, including Freud etc. I have also seen the mother/son relationship extensively documented in true crime documentaries. Did the mother cause the man to develop into the killer? So, on and so forth. Yet this novel isn’t about the impact of the relationship on Rueben, but on Gilda.
Gilda’s fractured emotionally longing, for love from her son.
‘This is the son who never touches his mother, not even on the cheek when he kisses me hello. This is the son who never visits me unless he knows he has to’ – Gilda
The wedding and the speech leave quite the impression with Gilda. They cause her to challenge everything about her own childhood, upbringing and existence.
Gilda’s emotional pain at her son’s marriage, weighs on her like a bereavement. She lives alone and has little else in her life to focus on. So, what is born that day becomes an obsession. Gilda’s only (reluctant) friend is Margo, who has known Gilda from their school days together. I hoped through Margo we might get to the truth. But Gilda is content to paint an entirely different story whenever she speaks to her. Margo believes the two share a close bond. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. . . .
‘As if love were simply there for the taking’ – Gilda
The novel explores Gilda’s childhood, she had distant parents. Who were Hamberg socialites until ww2. Gilda was then sent to boarding to school in England to avoid the Nazi’s. She took this as the ultimate rejection, which caused a lack of confidence as a mother herself and last a lifetime.
“Don’t think any of us will miss you” – Lena
Gilda was constantly compared to her sister Lena. Her sister was the blonde bombshell, the beautiful clever daughter. Gilda was seen as the inconvenience or the embarrassment. This is cemented further when her father decides to marry her off to a work colleague. A marriage of convenience for an inconvenient young girl.
“You’ll like him very much. You’ve got no choice” – Gilda’s father
Her marriage to Frank Goodman, was far from a success. But yet produced the very much-loved Reuben. The secrets within Gilda and Frank’s marriage slowly unravel and you begin to see things not only from Gilda’s point of view. But from the truth of what took place years ago.
‘Our marriage went wrong but he wasn’t a bad man. He doesn’t deserve the things I’ve done’ – Gilda
In the present day of 1969, Gilda begins to meddle in the lives of Rueben and Alice. I could tell this would end badly for Gilda and that her continued interference would only push her son further away. I wanted to scream through the pages at her, that she was going to make this all so much worse than it need be.
Alice however, continues to make effort with Gilda to try and form a bond and a relationship with her new unapproving mother-in-law. In one sense Alice is quite the hero of the novel. It maybe through her kindness and tolerance that Gilda sees sense. Rueben on the other hand is not so forgiving. He blurts out a brash statement, that made me physically flinch. As I knew the impact this would have on Gilda’s emotional state.
“She looks after me better than you ever did” – Rueben
Rueben’s own childhood is then explored. We learn that like his mother he too, was sent away to boarding school. However, the circumstances were devastatingly different.
We also learn that through his entire childhood Gilda seemed to love and long for him from afar. Pursuing other interests as she felt so inadequate as a mother. To such an extent that Rueben’s first word was ‘nanny’.
Somehow in all of this, I felt that a lot could be solved if Gilda and Rueben just sat down and talked the past through. Then you remember that this is 1969 and within the era, parenting attitudes were much different to modern-day parenting.
I found this novel incredibly moving, for many reasons. Gilda’s past history makes such a fascinating read. I felt captivated by her. She is this book reading, whiskey drinking woman that loves to wallow in her own misery.
We can all be a Gilda, given Gilda’s personal history.
Essentially this novel is about coming to terms with our past mistakes and building a future. I found it interesting to read about women in a different era. The social norms and traditional roles they play. So much different from my own experiences.
Slow burning, literary and captivating. 4*