Two estranged BFFs reunite in Tangiers with dark consequences
Here’s a good one that might have been missed by fans of female-centric psychological thrillers. “Tangerine” slipped by me when it came out this year, although it’s no wonder it got lost among the scads of similar page-turners that erupted on the book scene on the heels of the popular “The Girl on the Train,” “The Woman in the Window” and the like. I picked it up when I noted that first-time novelist Christine Mangan has an MFA from the University of Southern Maine.
I’m a sucker for a good setting and “Tangerine,” set in Tangiers, Morocco, in the 1950s before independence, is part of the mystery itself. When two estranged college friends reunite there, the city’s labyrinth of buildings, languishing humidity and explosion of market-day colors provide an intriguing backdrop for the drama to play out. It’s a strong contrast to the women’s flashbacks of their days as roommates at Bennington College in Vermont, with its biting cold air and snow-covered Green Mountains. Mangan’s gothic-esque writing style adds to the intrigue.
Alice lives in Tangiers with her husband, the smug and handsome John. Before becoming unhappily married, Alice, a privileged and emotionally fragile Brit, envisioned having maids and lounging poolside at posh clubs, but her husband, she finds, likes to live like the locals. She rarely leaves their home and has no friends. “I spent hours, long, lonely tiresome hours, exploring Tangiers from the comfort of our apartment.” John, meanwhile, vanishes once a month “into his mysterious city that he loved with a fierceness I could not understand, exploring her secrets on his own, while I remained inside—my very own captor and captive.”
Enter Lucy unannounced on Alice’s doorstep, hoping to rekindle the relationship they had before “the terrible night” that ended it and sent Alice into a dark abyss for the second time in her life. Before that, according to Lucy, she and Alice had a unique “affinity” despite their disparate socioeconomic upbringings. “The relationship that Alice and I had formed after only a few short weeks, the partiality that we felt for each other—it went beyond any rational description.” “Tangerine” is told alternately, chapter by chapter, by Alice and Lucy and their memories of their friendship differ wildly as they unravel. But whose take is the right take? Is either of them reliable?
John is surprised to find Lucy in his guest room because he knows nothing about her. Alice “had never told John about Bennington, about the accident—only what any of the newspapers had reported. Instead I pushed away everything to do with my former life, including Lucy.”
But the secrets of her past and present collide, and the collision is complicated by Lucy’s obsessive desire to resurrect the Alice she used to know, Alice’s submissiveness to Lucy’s pull and Lucy’s and John’s instant distrust and dislike of each other. Alice first plays along that she is glad to see Lucy. She harbors serious suspicions about her, but at the same time feels “the same effect she always had over me: strengthening and emboldening me, her presence serving as an armor I could never manage to affix on my own.” As John parades the women to his favorite smoky jazz clubs and kif bars, Alice’s resentment toward him grows and her defenses against Lucy weaken. When Alice and Lucy take trips to Moroccan sites and spend time alone, gaslighting and subterfuge emerge, leading to death and more than a few other resulting surprises.
Toxic relationships and unreliable narrators are the stuff of this genre and “Tangerine,” with an exotic 1950s flair, doesn’t disappoint.
Amy Canfield is an editor of Maine Women Magazine and an avid reader. She lives in South Portland.