Revenge Follows Function: A review of The Inhabitants by Beth Castrodale

Reviewed by Laura Hulthen Thomas

The Inhabitants
by Beth Castrodale
Regal House Publishing
Sept 2024, Paperback, 256 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1646034963

If form follows function, as the early twentieth century architect Louis Sullivan famously said, what happens when function goes off the rails? Beth Castrodale’s fifth novel, The Inhabitants, explores this question through an impressively broad lens of contemporary issues. Modern co-parenting, grieving, and the #MeToo movement layer the pursuits of sculpture, painting, and architecture that form the novel’s creative core. The Inhabitants is part contemporary search for the self and part throwback gothic mystery; part revenge narrative and part ghost story. In this entertaining and creative novel, Castrodale smartly weaves together modern and classical literary takes on potions and tonics, nature and nurture, motherhood and friendship, grieving and healing, and the perils of trusting the wrong people while distrusting one’s own instincts.

By the time Bostonian Nilda Ricci is placing her mother’s signature sculpture, “Revenge in Glass”, in her new—and eccentric—home’s bay window, she’s grappling with more than whether the light streaming through the pane will do the art justice. Nilda is grieving the recent passing of her mother and is also fresh off the type of amicable divorce that leaves open the possibility that irreconcilable differences could someday be reconciled. When an aunt bequeaths to her this historic Vermont Victorian, Nilda decides her daughter, Sidney, and her own art could use a radical change of scene. She boxes up both her mother’s glass sculptures and her own painting, but settling into her new home proves to be unexpectedly unsettling. Her mother’s sculpture seems to be telling her the same: 

To Nilda the sculpture had always been something of a mystery, shaped in heat her mom had stoked long before she was born. In her childhood she’d seen it as a huge red Slinky, stomped flat then twisted by an angered giant. Later, after she’d learned the story behind it—or as much of the story as her mom would tell her—she saw it as a wave of rage, frozen just before breaking. When the sun struck the sculpture at just the right angle, as it was doing now, it spilled blood-red light across the floor.


The novel’s title is at the heart of Nilda’s dilemma and doubts. How do you inhabit a place, a relationship, or a family where belonging will require you to take the form of their (dys)function? These doubts are expertly seeded by the novel’s exquisitely detailed unusual features of the historic house, itself deeply unsettled by the original architect-owner’s deteriorating mental health later in his life and career. The character of Nathaniel Farleigh suggests a Frank Lloyd Wrightian devotee of the spiritual unity of form and function gone awry. Farleigh, who designed asylums, took to using elements in his own home he originally designed to soothe patients. Nilda is particularly puzzled by, and then drawn to, the sideways windows at floor level that patients used to self sooth by lying down to look outside. 

Castrodale elevates other classic New England architectural details from mere design elements into psychological study and a unique riff on the haunted house narrative. Witch windows, elaborate fan-shaped eave brackets, and irregular windows eerily suggesting spider eyes at first fascinate Nilda but soon draw her into an obsession to learn what lay behind Farleigh’s state of mind. As Nilda discovers, and confronts, Farleigh’s purported paranoia through hidden closets, old architectural models that spookily turn up in unexpected places, and a narrow “leaning room” with a skylight the only window, she forms a contemporary empathy for his struggles with depression: “…she wondered whether Nathaniel was just misunderstood, as an architect and as someone experiencing a mental or emotional crisis. A crisis for which he’d been blamed, it seemed, and ultimately punished.” 

Her growing empathy for Farleigh clashes with the effect of the odd architecture on Nilda, particularly, and poignantly, on her role as a mother. After six-year-old Sidney witnesses Nilda smashing, in an uncharacteristic and unexplained rage, one of Farleigh’s old architectural models, her daughter withdraws from Nilda. Sidney takes refuge in an imaginary friend who, as the novel unfolds, Nilda learns may or may not be a figment of Sidney’s imagination. Nilda’s attempts to win back her daughter’s trust, and her jealousy over the neighbor’s growing closeness with Sidney, are among the novel’s most honest and heartbreaking depictions of the challenges single mothers face. Nilda’s visions of her deceased mother in the home’s lurid mantelpiece carvings also lead to emotionally honest and beautifully described portraits of loss and grief. Late in the novel, a particularly lovely passage finds Nilda lying on her side at night in front of Farleigh’s floor window. Just like one of the asylum patients Farleigh sought to soothe with this design, Nilda sees her mother’s likeness in her own reflection and imagines they’re singing a duet of a beloved childhood song.

Nilda learns many of the details of Farleigh’s history from her endearing but mysterious new neighbor, Graham Emmerly, himself entangled in the history of the home. Graham lives in the companion house Farleigh designed for his son, who proceeded to rip out the most disturbing elements of his father’s later designs. Similar to the novel’s depiction of Farleigh’s Wrightian design principles gone awry, Graham is, at first blush, a sort of contemporary Brother Cadfael; a chemistry teacher devoted to science, herbalism, and healing. Graham’s deep dive into potions and tinctures seems, at first, charming and well-intentioned, described with the novel’s rich attention to detail:

As he led her down the hall, toward the kitchen, an aroma grew more and more intense: like that of Christmas greenery, but with tones of mint, florals, underlying earthiness. The kitchen table proved to be the source, its surface covered with various sprigs of green, some of which she recognized: rosemary, basil, peppermint. There were also clumps of dark purple berries, and clusters of tiny flowers, yellow and white.

Nilda is seduced by Graham’s pragmatic love of nature, a seduction that will power much of the suspense that unfolds in their growing relationship. But, as with all The Inhabitants’ interwoven plots, what’s charming on the surface hides sinister undercurrents. To reveal them, Nilda must battle to trust her own instincts.

Nilda’s struggles with her daughter, her relationship with Graham, and the house she thought would offer a much-needed fresh start intersects with a #MeToo twist on a revenge narrative. Nilda’s work on her latest commission, the portrait of the headmaster of a local boarding school, is disrupted by her best friend Toni’s revelation that this headmaster assaulted her when she was a student at the school. As Nilda plots to expose her friend’s assailant, she finds treachery and trust in the people she’d least expect to find them. Adding to the complexity of learning whom to trust and whom to expose is the laconic housekeeper. Helen Thornwell is a more nurturing but no less mysterious throwback to Daphne du Maurier’s Mrs. Danvers. Helen holds secrets and tragedies of her own that cause Nilda to question whose reality, and story, she’s really living—Nathaniel Farleigh’s, Helen’s, or her own?

Readers looking for multi-layered, engaging story lines that pay homage to and update beloved elements of classical literature, mystery and revenge dramas, and ghost stories will find The Inhabitants a compelling read. Castrodale’s writing is at the heart of the novel’s joys. The descriptions of architectural elements, the fine arts, nature, and the Vermont rural landscape radiate subtle emotion without turning sentimental. Castrodale deftly transforms these details into both story and psychological study. Like great architecture, no element of The Inhabitants is orphaned, and the novel’s form follows an artfully crafted, suspenseful, and emotionally satisfying function.  

About the Reviewer: Laura Hulthen Thomas heads the undergraduate creative writing program at the University of Michigan’s Residential College, where she teaches fiction and nonfiction. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Witness, Epiphany, The Cimarron Review, and others. Her short story collection, States of Motion (Wayne State University Press, 2017), debuted to strong national reviews. Her book reviews have appeared in North of Oxford and other journals.