In spring 2020, one of my most anticipated books was The Ancestor by Danielle Trussoni, a horror set in the Italian Alps. I’m always down for a spooky story set in an isolated location, and even better if there’s a European mansion – or castle! – involved. Though I’ve had The Ancestor on my shelves for several months, I’m reading a few books set in Italy this month, and I was excited to start here.
|The Ancestor by Danielle Trussoni|
|Setting||Italy (The Alps: Mont Blanc)|
|Number of Pages||349|
|Format I Read||Hardcover|
|Original Publication Date||April 7, 2020|
It feels like a fairy tale when Alberta “Bert” Monte receives a letter addressed to “Countess Alberta Montebianco” at her Hudson Valley, New York, home that claims she’s inherited a noble title, money, and a castle in Italy. While Bert is more than a little skeptical, the mystery of her aristocratic family’s past, and the chance to escape her stressful life for a luxury holiday in Italy, is too good to pass up.
At first, her inheritance seems like a dream come true: a champagne-drenched trip on a private jet to Turin, Italy; lawyers with lists of artwork and jewels bequeathed to Bert; a helicopter ride to an ancestral castle nestled in the Italian Alps below Mont Blanc; a portrait gallery of ancestors Bert never knew existed; and a cellar of expensive vintage wine for Bert to drink.
But her ancestry has a dark side, and Bert soon learns that her family history is particularly complicated. As Bert begins to unravel the Montebianco secrets, she begins to realize her true inheritance lies not in a legacy of ancestral treasures, but in her very genes.
A stunning, bewitching gothic novel of suspense, The Ancestor plunges readers into a world of dark family secrets, the burden of family inheritance, and the allure of finding home.
“I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m… wait, what?!”
It’s been a while since I read anything in the horror or even thriller realm, and I’ve been itching to get into something spooky. Horror is my favorite movie genre, but somehow, I don’t seem to be reading it enough lately. When The Ancestor came out a year ago, I was instantly drawn to its sinister cover and mysterious summary, and I was excited to finally sit down and read it.
From the very first pages, I loved it. The writing style walks a fine line between sparse and intimate – perfect for this genre. The author adeptly sets up The Ancestor for a haunting, chilling story. It checks many of my favorite horror boxes: Long-lost relatives? Check. Isolated European mansion? Check. Strange and mysterious circumstances surrounding your inheritance and new home? Check.
Once Alberta (Bert) Montebianco and her husband, Luca, leave their small town in New York for northern Italy, things take off quickly. If you’re looking for a romanticized, vicarious touristic experience of Italy, The Ancestor only offers a brief chapter. Bert and Luca enjoy a night out in Torino, indulging in delicious Italian food and shopping. But this bliss doesn’t last; soon, Bert is whisked away to her new castle on Italys’s northwestern border, nestled on Mont Blanc and cut off from society except by helicopter. Bert is alone except for two elderly family members and four staff living in the mansion.
By this point in the book, I was expecting The Ancestor to go in a certain direction, ideally involving dark family secrets and ghosts haunting the place. However, I was only half right. Instead, as we get glimpses into the Montebianco family tree and history, the story gets pretty weird.
At first, I was taken aback by the direction the book goes in. It’s a tad sci-fi, which wasn’t what I’d been anticipating. But with further reflection, I realized that it was perfectly appropriate for the genre. The Ancestor is Gothic fiction. At one point in the book, it references Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, one of the first and most iconic Gothic novels, and that’s actually quite indicative of the vibe this book has. It’s not the romantic Gothic of the Brontës’ works, though it does have the elements of isolation and harsh landscapes. It’s more in line with the science fiction Gothics, and rather than ghosts or mythological monsters, the horror here is more along the lines of science, evolution, Darwin, and so on. One book I read last year that The Ancestor could be compared to, at least genre-wise, is Mexican Gothic, which also has some sci-fi, evolutionary elements.
The Ancestor keeps the stakes high and the mystery looms over Alberta. She’s trapped like an animal in a cage, but instead of bars holding her captive, it’s the harsh landscape. Atop a mountain many miles from civilization in the dead of winter – and with no access to the outside world, because there’s one inaccessible phone and no WiFi – she doesn’t have many options to get out of there. Not that she doesn’t try…
Eventually, The Ancestor switches gears again, offering a tender look at family and those who are thought of as a threat to society. How do you hide someone who wouldn’t be able to survive in today’s world? This novel raises some interesting questions by its end. It’s unnerving, but also thought-provoking and compassionate.
Although I was super excited when I started the book, and although I can appreciate the direction it went as a work of authentic Gothic fiction, The Ancestor was a bit different from what I’d hoped for. I still really enjoyed it though, and would be happy to read more from Danielle Trussoni. If you like Gothic works or are interested in trying out some chilling horror, The Ancestor is a great book to check out.
About the Author
Danielle Trussoni is the New York Times, USA Today, and Sunday Times (UK) top ten bestselling author of the supernatural thrillers Angelology and Angelopolis. She is the co-creator with Hadrian Royo of the Crypto-Z audio series podcast, a companion to The Ancestor. She writes the horror column for the New York Times Book Review and has recently served as a jurist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Trussoni holds an MFA in Fiction from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she won the Michener-Copernicus Society of America Award. Her books have been translated into thirty-three languages. She lives in the Hudson River Valley with her family and her pug Fly.