4 out of 4 stars
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Lloyd R. Free’s Bittersweet takes readers on a journey back to the early 1960s, to a world on the cusp of war. Two friends, Max and Renny, are frustrated with the political scene in the United States. After getting caught up in a campus riot, they decide to head to France for a change of pace. They enroll in a school in Dijon but spend much time in Paris as well. School is different in Dijon, with no requirements to attend class, free meals, and plenty of time for hanging out with friends. Paris is busier with many new experiences, from cultural to the way people live. They watch Paris change during their time there, with the country having its own political battles.
Max grew up with a mother who graduated from Stanford yet favored life with mobsters in Vegas. He is vibrant and full of life, always wanting to be on the go. Renny is moodier, yet more contemplative about life, often absorbed in poetry and thought-provoking books. The young men explore love, friendships with other young people from around the world, and life. Which one of these men deals with unrequited love in a heartbreaking way, making the title come to life? And which experiences luxury in unexpected ways? Watch how their experiences contrast each other’s in somewhat surprising ways.
Free’s incredible imagery is prominent throughout the novel. One can vividly “see” what is happening as if they were there. For example, he describes a ride in Renny’s car as, “It was a warm, spring afternoon and the balmy air flowed over the windshield and down on their heads in soft caresses. Renny’s Edgar Allen Poe hairdo waved wildly as the breeze passed through his long curls.” One can also often feel the emotions of the characters.
The character development of the main characters and many of the side characters is outstanding. Renny’s dependency on others is often demonstrated in the story. Early on, he is unsure of himself when Max is off experiencing the local culture or with Fiona. Later, his dependency changes, and he does more on his own but is often unsure of his decisions. He is often melancholy, which makes him uninterested in life at times. Many supporting characters are given unexpected depth. Rolfe is a good friend to Renny, often giving him a hand in matters of the heart. He makes him join the living. He is someone that we all want as a “best friend,” especially since he pays for the wine.
Politics is a significant background theme as the story unfolds. It is often talked about among the group but primarily as it relates to them from a distance. With the increasing conflicts between France and Algeria, it is engaging to see how the author intertwines the riots in Paris with the characters’ ongoing storylines.
The story is written in the third person, going back and forth between different sub-stories. The story starts in the San Francisco area but takes place primarily in Dijon and Paris, where the author spent time when he was younger. French life is enhanced by the author’s own experiences. One of my favorite parts, although not significant to the story, is when Max tries snails for the first time. I could just imagine the taste in my mouth.
I rate Bittersweet 4 out of 4 stars. It is professionally edited, thought-provoking, and was impossible to put down. The only thing to dislike at times was some of the explicit sex, but it did not detract from the story to make it worthy of less than four stars. There is also some moderate profanity. Readers who love historical fiction, especially from the mid-20th century, as well as those who enjoy coming-of-age stories, will find this novel fascinating.
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