My Dark Vanessa meets The Queen's Gambit in this new novel of suspense about the bonds of family, the limits of talent, the risks of ambition, and the rewards of revenge.
When former piano prodigy Saskia Kreis returns home to Milwaukee after her mother's unexpected death, she expects to inherit the family estate, the Elf House. But with the discovery that her mother's will bequeathed the Elf House to a man that Saskia shares a complicated history with, she is forced to reexamine her own past––and the romantic relationship that changed the course of her life––for answers. Can she find a way to claim her heritage while keeping her secrets buried, or will the fallout from digging too deep destroy her?
Set against a post #MeToo landscape, Rachel Kapelke-Dale's The Ingenue delves into mother-daughter relationships, the expectations of talent, the stories we tell ourselves, and what happens when the things that once made you special are taken from you. Moving between Saskia's childhood and the present day, this dark, contemporary fairy tale pulses with desire, longing, and uncertainty, as it builds to its spectacular, shocking climax.
A Macmillan Audio production from St. Martin’s Press.
Release date: December 6, 2022
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Print pages: 320
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Listen to a sample
“Oh, wonderful! Yes, let’s never grow up. We’ll have adventures and seek treasure and hunt pirates and—”
Peter Pan looked a little uncomfortable.
“Ah. Well, you see, I didn’t exactly mean you, Wendy.”
Wendy frowned. “Then what did you mean?”
Peter laced his fingers together, refusing to meet her eyes. “Someone will have to cook and clean and generally look after things around camp, you know. And we thought—”
Wendy stared at him in disgust. “You want me to be your mother? No way. I’m ten.” She stood up and beckoned to the fairy. “Come on, Tinker Bell. Let’s you and me never grow up together.”
—FAIRY TALES FOR LITTLE FEMINISTS:WENDY AND THE LOST GIRLS, EVELYN HARPER KREIS
Saskia was nine. Even at a run, it took her more than twenty minutes to check every room in the Elf House, but her mother wasn’t anywhere to be found. Saskia had even checked the guest rooms, the semi-haunted spaces with their sheeted furniture like ghosts, where Evie almost never went and where Sas ventured only when she was trying to scare herself. She sometimes thought that the souls of her mother’s ancestors who had lived here were lying among the ancient oak bedsteads and bookshelves, just waiting for their chance to rise up and tell her what she was doing wrong.
It was not unusual for her mother to disappear for extended periods. In general, Saskia’s parents treated her less like a kid and more like a miniature adult. At parties, with other parents, her mother always said that the best thing to do with children was to let them come up, not to make them grow up. Like Saskia was a blade of grass or a dandelion.
So Saskia was used to being alone in the big house. And though she didn’t mind the echoing solitude, Lexi had bribed her with the twin temptations of a trip down to Downer followed by a sleepover. She loved their sleepovers, which were filled with ghost stories they’d cribbed from the bone-curdling Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series. Neither of them was technically allowed to read it, but that didn’t stop them. Nor did it stop their attempts to put what they’d learned into practice: summoning Bloody Mary, primarily, though Lex had a Ouija board that had been known to make an appearance.
But as much as Sas loved their sleepovers, she loved Downer more. Downer, the Main Street of Milwaukee’s East Side. Saint Nicholas had left her $10, and the bill was burning a hole in her pocket. She never had money. And $10 could buy any number of things on Downer: the popcorn truck sold dime candy in jars, Soaps & Scents had eighty-five-cent tea lights, Paperworks offered its stickers at a nickel a square. She could get eleven candles or 250 squares of stickers with her $10 bill, if she wanted them.
All she needed was to tell her mother, but Evie was nowhere to be found. There was only one place left to look. But the simple truth?
Sas was scared to go into the studio.
For decades, her mother’s subject had been women’s hands: the hands of famous artists, scientists, writers, actresses; the hands of washerwomen and seamstresses and mothers. She photographed them, she drew them, she was obsessed. The overall effect of going into her studio was like going into the woods, all those fingers like branches pinned on the wall. Like they were reaching out to grab you.
Saskia pulled on her snow boots with a sigh. Johann snuffled at her side, and she held the door open for him, letting him sprint out into the piles of snow. The snow went up almost to her knees, and she was tall for her age; everyone was always telling her. She wasn’t sure how true this was. She was Saskia-sized, that was all.
The studio was actually an old caretaker’s cottage that Evie had claimed for her own, a five-minute walk from the back door to the edge of the property. Surrounded by the northern pine copse, the cottage had had almost no sun reach its windows until last fall, when Evie had taken out the chain saw and cleared a gap in the trees herself.
Now, the afternoon sun slanted in the wide picture window, illuminating the gold of Evie’s head as she bent down over her drawings. Saskia liked to see her this way; it was the only time her mother’s expression ever resembled her own at the piano or her father’s at the cello.
At the door, she hesitated. Hesitated to break her mother’s concentration, hesitated to enter the forest of hands.
She gently brushed her knuckles against the door.
“What are you doing?” Saskia asked, sidling up to the desk. The reaching fingers on the walls had disappeared, replaced by a strange parade of figures … not girls, exactly, their bodies were slightly too elegant for that. But not women, either: their eyes were wide, shining.
“A new project. What do you think?” Evie leaned back in her chair, a stick of charcoal still in hand as she crossed her arms.
Saskia tried to live up to the question, to the respect that it implied.
She leaned closer. “They’re … they’re interesting. Mom, what are they? Who are they?”
Her mother set the charcoal down on the table, swiveled without rising to the electric kettle on the filing cabinet, and flicked it on.
“You really don’t see?”
Saskia looked again. The portraits lacked context, just bodies on blank white pages. But they wore old-fashioned dresses. Like—
“Are they from fairy tales?” she asked.
Evie swiveled back around as the kettle started to grumble. “Bingo!” she cried, pointing a finger at Saskia. “Well done, Sas. Yes. I’ve decided it’s time to put these old drafting skills to some real use.”
Evie taught drawing and illustration at the university, then came home and drew late into the night, until there was only the little orange circle of her desk lamp for light. Saskia could feel her mother itching to get back to work yet didn’t want to puncture the bubble of praise, wanting to remain as long as possible in its orb.
“Fairy tales,” she said again, bending over the sketches as if to study them.
“Fairy Tales for Little Feminists,” her mother corrected. “Good title, isn’t it?”
Saskia looked at the princesses. They weren’t Disney inspired, they were too elongated and sophisticated for that. She hated Disney anyway, everything except The Aristocats. Still. There was something more to her mother’s pictures, even she could tell. Something in the languid brushstrokes, in the blending of the colors.
Something more—and something strange.
Her mother, watching her face, laughed.
“Come out with it,” she said.
“Well, aren’t you going to get bored?”
“Why would I get bored?” Her mother looked genuinely perplexed.
Saskia swallowed. “I don’t. They’re all so—same-y. Aren’t they? Don’t the princesses all kind of … look alike?”
Evie’s eyes grew as round as whole notes.
“That’s part of the fascination. All those princesses, all those witches, all those dead mothers…”
“Well, you need a good dead mother to set any princess off on her quest!” Evie cried, palms to the ceiling. “Any mother worth her salt would have stopped each and every one of these girls before she even got a foot out the door.”
“But why do you want to tell stories that have already been told?” Saskia said.
“Ah. Because there’s something new in them every time. And it’s only the sameness that helps us to see that.”
Saskia watched her mother for a minute before admitting defeat. “I don’t get it.”
A knowing smile. “You will. Hey—what did you want, anyway?”
“Oh!” she said. “Can I sleep over at Lexi’s?” It was a perfunctory question—Lexi’s mom, Georgia, was one of her mother’s best friends, and the family lived next door.
But her mother, glancing for a millisecond back to the princesses on her table, had a funny expression on her face. Something tense under the relaxed looseness of her smile.
“Of course, you could,” Evie said tentatively, and sighed. “I’m just nostalgic, I guess. The way you used to sit at the piano. We could just park you there for days.”
“I already … I already practiced, though. Besides, Mrs. Hauser’s sick,” Saskia said, picking through the words carefully.
Evie’s head went up and down, like her sharp chin was being pulled by a puppeteer up in the ceiling.
“Sure,” she said finally. “Well, you’re going to do what you’re going to do.”
Back in the Elf House, Saskia stood frozen in the foyer for a minute. Two. Three.
Finally, she sat down on the staircase to pull her bright yellow boots off. And after padding in her socks back to the piano, she began to warm her hands up once again.
In Saskia Kreis’s life, only three things ever made her special: piano, the Elf House, and Patrick. Three things are a whole lot more than most people get, but it is hard to feel gratitude now. Hard to feel it as she stands at the gates to the Elf House in the Milwaukee midwinter, bare hands against the Victorian iron, for the first time in two years.
She’s known for a long time that things with her mother weren’t right, haven’t been since she quit Juilliard. But she didn’t realize they were like this. Didn’t realize that they’d degenerated to the point where her mother wouldn’t tell her about the fast-moving disease that was eating her alive.
Didn’t realize that her mother wanted the news of her death to hit her like a house collapsing over her head.
It gnaws at her stomach, empty and bitter. Evelyn Kreis had seen something in her daughter that disturbed her, that made her withdraw. Saskia doesn’t know what it is. But that judgment—or rather, the fear of that judgment and its accompanying dismissal—has kept Saskia away from her childhood home for two years, ever since she lost her job. She couldn’t face disappointing her mother one more time. And her mother’s failure to tell her, to say: I’m dying? To say: Please, come back home?
It means that Saskia was right to stay away.
Three things made her special, and one—no, two of them are here in Milwaukee. The Elf House and Patrick. She’ll see him again; tomorrow, she’ll see him again. Two years since their last encounter. The thought makes her insides swoop and soar like the seagulls playing over the lake. What will he think of her, the way she is now?
The first thing that made her special has long been lost to history. Saskia Kreis used to be the next great American pianist. An ingenue, a wunderkind, a virtuoso. She’d had her first public concert at seven, her first recording at fifteen. But something—her talent? her desire? nobody knew for sure, though a handful of obscure internet forums speculated—had tapered out by the time she was eighteen. A promising future at Juilliard was cut off after only one semester, and Saskia had transferred to NYU, where she’d studied computer science (Computers! Evie had cried) and electrical engineering, graduating to a career as a mediocre coder.
Thing number two still exists. It is, in fact, more present than ever: Saskia Kreis is the heiress who will inherit the Harper mansion, the Elf House. Fourteen thousand square feet and thirteen bedrooms, full of fanciful plasterwork and custom woodwork, antique furniture and oversize oil paintings. Two acres of gardens and orchards stretching to cliffs, with a sandy beach below. Owing to a bizarre clause in her great-grandfather’s will that all subsequent Harpers repeated in their own, the house has to go to the next direct descendant in Georg Harper’s line. So it will skip over her father (though she’ll let him stay there, obviously—that’s never been a question) and land directly in her lap. That beautiful old house.
But even now, she’s remembering it rather than viewing it. Just as she has for these past two years. Because you can’t see the Elf House itself from the street. Passersby see only the gates, the lane of pines behind them twisting off somewhere toward the lake. You have to follow the gentle curve of the private road before it comes into view. Slate gray, with only a few details saving it from outright harshness. The pointed arches of the garrets, the stained-glass windows, the lacelike wrought iron lining the balconies. And, of course, the elves. A lovely house, a prime example of Milwaukee’s Germanic heritage. But the only time the public sees it is on the historical society’s annual garden tours of the East Side.
She sighs and opens the gates, feet crunching too loudly through the snow-covered gravel as she makes her way through the trees. As she comes closer to the Elf House; as the East Side fades away.
A good place to raise kids. That’s what residents always say about Milwaukee’s East Side. The sprawling Gothic and Tudor and Italianate mansions on the lake ceding to the properly contained Victorian single-families near the redbrick, leafy university. Beaches and boulevards, bookstores and barbecues. Lake Park delineating the limits of the neighborhood (it was designed by Olmsted, who designed Central Park—a fact the well-educated residents all know and occasionally trot out). Canopies of 150-year-old trees joining hands over side streets filled with kids on bikes.
After the grim necessity of the airport, the ramshackle houses and dirty piles of snow lining the freeway, the East Side feels like a fairy-tale village to Saskia. You’d think that two years away might give her an idealized image of her hometown. But here, in the richest part of the city, the image and the reality are one. It’s either wreaths and garlands, gingerbread houses lined with lights, or soft blue skies over sandy cliffside beaches that could be—and are—Instagram worthy, no filter required. Yup. A good place to raise kids.
But it has been years since Saskia Kreis was a kid to be raised, and the Uber driver, seeing her address, had rolled his eyes, though he hadn’t realized she was watching. A rich bitch. He hadn’t realized it’s her dead mother’s AmEx in her Apple Pay, slyly input by the older woman on her trip to New York the previous spring. Saskia had had no idea it would be Evie’s last trip there. Had Evie known?
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