By Rachel Kapelke-Dale
St. Martin’s Press, $27.99
Thirty-seven-year-old Saskia Kreis’ life is a mess. Once a talented pianist, her career as a musician is now over. She lives precariously, emotionally estranged from her well-off Midwestern parents. When her artist mother, Evie, dies unexpectedly, Saskia returns to Milwaukee, expecting to inherit her multimillion-dollar mansion named the Elf House. This grand house, complete with peaks, spires, towers and mullioned windows, is replete with the family’s Germanic heritage of romance and fairy tale. Its story is entwined with Saskia’s identity.
But Saskia learns that Evie has disinherited her, leaving the house to Patrick, a family friend, decades older than Saskia, with whom she had a romantic relationship in her adolescence. What explains Evie’s surprising bequest? As Saskia probes into the murky recesses of the decaying mansion, she unearths secrets about her mother and the true nature of her own relationship with Patrick, a child pornographer.
There are plenty of stories these days about the long-term effect of sexual abuse in adolescent girls. Kapelke-Dale makes her own solid contribution to this genre. She questions the idea of the perfect victim and examines institutional biases that protect abusers. In these dissections, “The Ingenue” is about the difficult process of piecing together a sense of self after abuse. It’s a timely reminder of what it takes for a victim to claim the narrative of abuse.
Kapelke-Dale adds to this story an engaging angle: a fraught mother-daughter relationship. Saskia is disdainful of her mother’s affectatious second-wave feminism. It informs Evie’s commercially successful book, “Fairy Tales for Little Feminists,” retellings in which spunky heroines, all too perfect and winning, reject expected gender roles. To Saskia, Evie’s heroines are unrealistic. But now Saskia has an opportunity to rewrite one of her mother’s girl boss heroines: Persephone.
.From little hints, Kapelke-Dale invites the reader to imagine the unfulfilled and ghostly lives of the women in Saskia’s family. This makes the Elf House reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s House of Usher, dripping with dread. And yet for all of the novel’s dredging up of buried family secrets, the revelations are humdrum, and the reader may be disappointed that there’s no real twist here.
Evie, for instance, is explained more in terms of her reactions than as a well defined character. Her mental health crisis is implied, but the impression of her personality is vague.
I cheered the book’s dramatic ending, which releases Saskia of the ghosts of her past and gives her a fresh start. But the story also endorses a resort to cruelty. This makes the novel unsatisfying.