Christine Mangan’s debut novel “Tangerine” — “As if Donna Tartt, Gillian Flynn and Patricia Highsmith had collaborated on a screenplay to be filmed by Hitchcock," it says on the cover blurb — was acquired for the movies months before its publication. It doesn’t take many pages to see why.
If you think I can resist opening a novel that’s blurbed on the cover with “As if Donna Tartt, Gillian Flynn and Patricia Highsmith had collaborated on a screenplay to be filmed by Hitchcock” — then you, my friend, are quite mistaken. (My reading, I must confess, was delayed by some brief imagining of what those four would be like at an intimate dinner party.) Christine Mangan’s debut novel “Tangerine” was acquired for the movies — by George Clooney’s production company, and that dinner party just keeps getting better, doesn’t it? — months before its publication; a screenplay is already underway. It doesn’t take many pages to see why.
Set mostly in 1956 Tangier (with a brief later prologue and a few flashbacks), “Tangerine” unfolds in two first-person voices, alternating chapters. Barely more than a year ago, Alice and Lucy were close friends and roommates at Bennington College in Vermont, but are now a world away. Alice, an orphaned heiress, has moved to Tangier, timidly, with her new husband John; she married him, we learn in the early pages, to escape something, “to forget, to leave the past behind.” We don’t know what that something is, but Lucy does, and she has arrived in Morocco unexpectedly, a scribbled address on a slip of paper in her hand, desperate to reunite with Alice and convince her “that I had never lied, not about any of it, despite what had happened between us.”
Surely I don’t need to tell you — you’ve read “Gone Girl,” right? — that neither of these narrators is particularly reliable. “Tangerine” unfolds as a shimmering hall of mirrors, as we circle around what happened at Bennington, delicately touching it from different angles. We meet Alice and Lucy through their own words, and we see them through the other’s eyes; the Alice that Lucy sees isn’t quite the same one who speaks to us, and vice versa. Their identities slip together and apart. Lucy, at one point, calls herself Alice; Alice corrects someone who addresses her as Lucy. A cherished bracelet belongs — to whom? Has Alice gone mad? Or has Lucy?
Mangan puts her Ph.D. thesis on eighteenth-century Gothic literature (and isn’t that a refreshing thing to find in an author bio?) to good use; this old-fashioned tale of obsession and sticky-hot shadows practically pulses on the page. The breathlessness of the prose — both Alice and Lucy’s narration has a lush, multicomma’d headiness to it — keeps those pages flipping, and you can easily picture the eerily elegant movie this might be. If you’ve seen “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” based on Highsmith’s novel, you won’t be able to keep that film out of your head while reading “Tangerine.” If you haven’t — well, go watch it; it’s terrific.
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That cover blurb, written by no less than Joyce Carol Oates, turns out to be absolutely accurate, almost too much so. Reading “Tangerine,” you can’t help thinking of Tartt (the Vermont college setting so like “The Secret History”), Flynn (the dueling, twistily entangled narrators) and Highsmith (I kept expecting Tom Ripley to turn up, around a corner). And every echoing footstep, every drop of sweat, every meaningful glance has a cinematic resonance. I got quite happily lost under “Tangerine’s” spell, in Mangan’s mesmerizing triplets of description (whiskey smells like “smoke and dust and something ancient”). It carries more than a whiff of melodrama, but how very intoxicating it smells. “Only Tangier knew,” muses a villain — I wouldn’t dream of saying who — “and I suspected she would keep her secrets.”
“Tangerine,” by Christine Mangan. Ecco, 308 pp., $26.99