The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean
Published by Algonquin Books
Publication date: June 25, 2019
Genres: Childhood, Debut, Fiction, Mystery
I’ve recently learned something about my reading taste—which is kind of awesome after seven years of writing reviews. Here it is: I enjoy ambiguity but not in anything purported to have a mystery component. I can be even more specific. If young girls disappearing are the principle premise of the story, then I need to know, for better or worse, what happened to them. Don’t give me a lot of options and avenues and especially don’t get coy and end with a hint. This newfound wisdom on my part comes from a recent read, The Van Apfel Girls are Gone.
The Van Apfel Girls are Gone swings between the present when Tikka is returning home to Australia from Baltimore because her older sister Laura is about to start chemotherapy, and the past—twenty years prior when three girls who lived on their street and with whom they spent most of their childhood disappeared. They were the Van Apfel girls: Hannah, 14, Cordelia, 13, and Ruth, 7.
In visiting the past, McLean provides ample suspects and theories as to what might have happened to the girls. Their own father, a fire and brimstone preacher, struggled to keep his daughters on a godly path. Most especially, Cordelia, who was an unfortunate combination of beauty and wild spirit that meant she was forever pushing boundaries and suffering the consequences.
The way Ruth reported it, it wasn’t until later that night that the Lord visited Mr. Van Apfel, who in turn came to Cordie when she was taking a bath. There he held her head under the shampoo-slick surface to cast away all of her sins.
It also means she attracts attention and it’s here that McLean heightens the novel’s tension. It’s set in 1992 when Lindy Chamberlain, a woman wrongly convicted of killing her baby, is vindicated, causing an uproar from supporters and opponents alike. The news permeates the novel, highlighting the space between appearances, assumptions, and the truth.
Tikka as a child reminds me of Grace in The Trouble with Goats and Sheep—the kind of clever girl who sees more than she should, annoys adults, but makes for funny and accidentally insightful reading. Her smarts, energy, and imagination make for the novel’s best reading. It’s a stark contrast to the grown woman who chases other women down the street because they remind of her of Cordie. This is largely because there was no real evidence of friendship between them. Laura and Hannah were clearly best friends, but McLean never offers up a single real conversation between Tikka and Cordie, the obsession hard to understand.
There are a lot of elements to The Van Apfel Girls are Gone but rather than pulling the novel together into a cohesive whole, they dilute it so that it doesn’t cleanly fit into any genre. Yes, there is a mystery and if that’s what you like then the novel works. As I mentioned at the beginning of the review, vanishing girls and no answers, just a slight, sly hint of…something at the very end, doesn’t work for me. I appreciated Tikka as a girl and the sections on childhood are evocative and well-written, but the woman and the obsession left me with book like-ish, not book love..