Caroline Blackwood’s The Stepdaughter a short, claustrophobic epistolary novel concerns a woman in her thirties who writes ranting letters in her head, signing them ‘J.’ J is stuck in a large, expensive New York apartment along with her small daughter Sally Ann, lumpish stepdaughter Renata and a young French girl named Monique who’s been sent by J’s absent husband to help with chores and the children. While J may seem to have a fortunate life, materially at least, in reality, J believes that her husband “successful international lawyer,” Arnold, has pulled a fast one. J and Arnold were happily married, and they had a daughter together. J argues, through her letters, that the marriage hit the rocks when Arnold assumed custody of his teenage daughter, Renata, following the institutionalization of her chronic alcoholic mother.
Everything about Renata I found instantly disturbing. She had poor thin hair which she had dyed a glaring peroxide yellow. She had lazily allowed the roots to grow out, and her skull was shocking in contrast, they were such an inky black. Her face was pudgy with lost, fat-buried features, and her skin was very bad, as if she had always lived on a diet of ice-cream and starch. She was wearing an orange and white T-shirt which had a really bold Californian bad taste. It emphasized the way that her bulging midriff was just as prominent as her bulging belly and breasts, I found myself staring transfixed by the brightness of Renata’s ugly orange shorts, which allowed one to see that her massive thighs were marked like an old woman’s with little pocks of bluish fat.
Renata is 11 when she first arrives, and 13 when the book opens. J, Arnold’s third wife, believes that Renata, a girl who “invites a kind of cruelty,” somehow poisoned their marriage. Both J and Arnold ignore Renata as much as possible, and J finds herself resenting Renata. Renata has a habit of plugging the toilet and she bakes almost nonstop, using instant cake mixes, while leaving the kitchen a total mess. J feeling wronged by Arnold, who is increasingly absent, extorts a new, larger apartment from her absent spouse.
Now J sees her new apartment as her “last resting-place” and is “humiliated now to realize that Arnold was over-feeding me like a fowl when he bought me this apartment. When he encouraged me to furnish it so expensively and promised to find me a French girl to help me with the children, Arnold was treating me like some wretched old bird which is fattened up just before the kill.
J, who is sliding down the rabbit hole without realising it, blames all of her woes on her stepdaughter, Renata. And then J, finally, shelves her resentment long enough to talk to Renata. …
The Stepdaughter covers some universal truths. How, for example, other people can become scapegoats for our problems. In this case, Renata, an overweight, silent 13-year-old becomes the vessel for J’s spleen. On another level, the novel explores the idea of how spouses often reserve their venom for another individual rather than the spouse. Then there’s the whole step-child/step-parent relationship.
This is not an easy book to read. J’s vitriol seems all too real which is evidence of Blackwood’s talent, but that said, this short tale doesn’t make for easy or pleasant reading. You can’t help but feel sorry for poor Renata.
I loved Blackwood’s Great Granny Webster.