“If you are not smart at home…you will not be smart here. If you run into trouble at home, do not be surprised to run into trouble here. You are still the same person.” This is some of the very best advice Christine Mangan’s debut novel, Tangerine, has to offer and might have been its brightest scene if the book hadn’t been frivolous enough to stuff these words into the mouth of a Moroccan man named Youssef. Despite being portrayed as a mostly manipulative street ruffian with zero interiority throughout, he kindly dispenses this smarting bit of wisdom to a British woman whose dogmatic gullibility has landed him in prison, possibly for the duration of his life, framed for a crime he did not commit.
To backtrack: Lucy Mason arrives on the doorstep of Alice Shipley and her husband, John McAllister, in Tangier in 1956 — as Morocco is in the throes of liberating itself from French colonial rule — a year after the two women have left Bennington College. There they’d been roommates, very close, bound by a common, tragic biographical detail (they are both orphans, or profess to be) and an enigmatic, indescribable attraction. In alternating chapters conveyed by the female leads, there unfolds the story of how Lucy ruins Alice’s life because she’s jealous of her, and in love with her, and she has no impulse control to speak of — but she is also a masterful logistician, in the vein of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. At the tail end of 2016, Imperative Entertainment acquired the film rights to Mangan’s thriller. Scarlett Johansson is attached to play Alice.
Alice is wealthy, guileless, petite — but hates the word “petite”! — and does not like to read. Lucy remarks of her, in a characteristically mixed and turbid description, “she was made of lightness and air, she was made, it seemed, for living, rather than reading about the experiences of other lives.” John also doesn’t read (his sizable collection of English literature is only for show), but does seem to enjoy deceiving and undermining his wife. Meanwhile, Lucy is diligent, charismatic, American. As the evidence mounts, we learn she’s also poor, corrupt, murderous, and well-read. Between the predictable sociopath, the empty-headed aristocrat, and the misogynist par excellence, it’s hard to pinpoint a decent critique of this novel’s world from within. Each of the book’s characters, in their own way, is entitled yet passive, an impervious thrill-chaser gazing lamp-eyed about their foreign surrounds, except for Youssef, an overused auxiliary character who is somehow worldly and scheme-driven, yet fooled at all the most opportune moments — a dull, flat tool for the terse dilettantes who have come from the West to play in his backyard.
Tangerine’s strength is its propulsive, tightly drawn plot, especially toward the end, and exhibition of tried-and-true thriller themes. The central relationship between Alice and Lucy strongly recalls Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley in its frenetic pace, homoerotic implications, stark class divide, and mutual obsession (Mangan even borrows directly the scene from Ripley where Tom is caught modeling Dickie Greenleaf’s clothing before a mirror in his host’s home). Although actually, the book feels more like a screenplay for the movie version, a text in which each line advances the plot, selects a mood or a time of day, but appears far too untroubled by artistic intention, novelty, or intrigue. Desire is always occluded behind the pink, magisterial clouds of international travel or “Vermont’s Green Mountains,” and that’s passable in a sleek, noirish kind of way. But the imperious conflation of personal drama with the coinciding fight for Moroccan independence is flat-out unbearable. This acquisitive register is perhaps best encapsulated by Alice’s description of Tangier as “this strange, lawless city that belonged to everyone and no one.” Or Lucy’s reflexive likening of Morocco’s impending independence from France and her own weird drama over her former college roommate: “Things were changing, shifting, and Tangier — all of us — would never be the same again.” Fine, but I don’t believe that last part.
By Christine Mangan