The Ingenue

One of my most anticipated books this year has been The Ingenue by Rachel Kapelke-Dale. Though I haven’t yet read her first novel, The Ballerinas, this one falls into a similar genre of drama thriller. Also like her first book, this one features a dual timeline and a protagonist gifted in the arts. Instead of dance, though, this time the main character is a prodigy of piano.

Special thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with an ARC of this book!


Saskia Kreis was only three when she began playing piano, but her gift was immediately evident and she became a prodigy. Throughout her adolescence, she won awards and was on track to attend Juilliard. But something happened to change her course and put a rift between Saskia and her parents, especially her mother. Now 37, Saskia returns home to Milwaukee after her mother, Evie, suddenly passes away. For the past 150 years, the castle-like house she grew up in, the Elf House, has always been passed on to a direct descendant in the family; so, instead of Saskia’s father, it should go to her. Both are surprised when Evie instead bequeaths the Elf House to Patrick Kintner, a man with whom Saskia has a secret and complicated past. As she and her father work to fight the will, Saskia reevaluates her past and is determined to finally see justice—for her family home and for herself.


The Ingenue opens with a fantastical, mysterious account of the Elf House, especially the strange elves that adorn the house where gargoyles otherwise would sit. It sets the tone for a sort of fairy tale, even if the main story is rooted in reality. The narrative jumps back and forth in time, between the 1990s and 2020. We get glimpses of the protagonist, Saskia, as she came of age as a piano prodigy, before returning to the main narrative in 2020 and the aftermath of her mother Evie’s death.

Early on, The Ingenue feels like a thriller, with a mystery surrounding Evie’s will unexpectedly bequeathing the family home to a colleague. Saskia and her dad, Mike, are in for a legal nightmare trying to contest it. But as the novel progresses, it feels less like a true thriller and more like a psychological drama. The real story comes out of Saskia’s past and the romantic relationship that changed her. At the time, from the ages of 14 to 18, Saskia was utterly devoted to her secret lover. But now, with the perspective of a woman in her 30s, Saskia recognizes things in past that she was blind to before. Saskia and Mike are determined to prevent the Elf House from going to Patrick, and they need evidence to support their legal battles. But the most telling evidence may be the secrets Saskia has buried so deep—secrets she still doesn’t want her dad to know about. How can she fix her present without uncovering the past?

Although Saskia feels like a somewhat unlikable character at the beginning of The Ingenue, as it progresses she is shown in a more nuanced and forgiving light. She can be caustic and selfish, yes, but she’s also a woman who was taken advantage of, is reevaluating her past, and is now fighting for justice. She’s a woman trying to understand her mother beyond the grave and reconcile the secrets of her past. By the end, the stakes have risen too high and there’s only one way to achieve closure.

One of the things I liked most about The Ingenue was the music. Early on, piano is a source of pride for Saskia, but as time passes, it becomes a source of stress. How can she continue to be “special” as she grows older? How can she live up to the pressure and dedicate a whole life to piano? What if she’s lost the passion? Although Saskia does give up piano for nearly 20 years, I like how it eventually returns to her, even if only in a small way.

I also loved the theme of the fairy tales. The Elf House is a sort of haunting and magical place, whether literally or only in atmosphere. Each chapter also opens with an excerpt from Evie’s book series, Fairy Tales for Little Feminists. We get snippets of her retellings of well-known tales, in which she transforms the princesses into girls who stand up for themselves. They’re a bit on the nose, as Saskia frequently points out, but they also offer new ideas of strength for its readers. It all comes full circle as Saskia works on finishing her mother’s last manuscript, fittingly a retelling of Demeter and Persephone. It’s up to Saskia to come up with the right ending in her own fairy tale, both in the story and in her own real life.

Final Thoughts

The Ingenue weaves in powerful themes, from music and the pressure of performance, to fairy tales and feminism, to the #MeToo story driving it all. It’s about unsavory romantic relationships, but also about the relationships between a daughter and her parents. This novel is a psychological drama as much as a thriller, and it culminates in a thought-provoking yet satisfying way. This is only Rachel Kapelke-Dale’s second novel, and I’m eager to go back and read The Ballerinas before her next release.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Get the Book

You can buy The Ingenue here – it’s available as a hardcover, ebook, and audiobook.

The Ingenue by Rachel Kapelke-Dale
SettingWisconsin, USA
Number of Pages320
Format I Readebook (NetGalley)
Original Publication DateDecember 6, 2022

Official Summary

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.

About the Author

Rachel Kapelke-Dale

Rachel Kapelke-Dale is the co-author of GRADUATES IN WONDERLAND (Penguin 2014), a memoir about the significance and nuances of female friendships. The author of Vanity Fair Hollywood’s column “Advice from the Stars,” Kapelke-Dale spent years in intensive ballet training before receiving a BA from Brown University, an MA from the Université de Paris VII, and a PhD from University College London. She currently lives in Paris.

More Books by Rachel Kapelke-Dale

Rachel Kapelke-Dale - The Ballerinas

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