This is a lengthy, historically detailed and excitingly written mash-up of Pygmalion meets Jane the Ripper, with a high density of fascinating issues woven into the fabric of the story. Savage Girl takes place in 1875, and begins in Virginia City, Nevada, where a supremely wealthy New York family is visiting by private train. The father, Freddy Delegate, is a collector of human oddities and is intrigued by a supposedly genuine “feral child,” a young woman who is the star of a freak show and the Savage Girl of the novel’s title. Delegate uses his influence to take the girl away from her surroundings and into his luxurious New York City townhome where he is determined to adopt her and turn her into the belle of the next coming-out debutante ball, thus winning the nurture vs. nature debate currently raging.
Son Hugo, a former Harvard medical student who has dropped out and spent time in a mental sanatorium, becomes obsessed with the girl. Only problem is, the horribly mutiliated corpses of any male admirers who cross her path begin to pile up, and Hugo can’t decide whether his new “sister” is a wild beast and killer, or whether he himself is the murderer. The story actually begins with Hugo charged with the latest murder, and the book unfolds as Hugo confesses to his infamous pair of lawyers, who are notorious historical figures of the period. As we learn of Savage Girl’s journey from captive of the Comanches to freak show “star” to the ballrooms of New York City’s wealthiest, we also learn of the financial manipulations of magnates like the Rockefellers, the Morgans, the Vanderbilts, of the ugly prejudices of the day, of attitudes towards women, of conditions in American mining towns, and so much more.
Then, of course, there is the mystery itself—who is Bronwyn Delegate really and how did she learn to wield those razor-sharp strap-on claws she carries around with her? We unveil her story along with the love-sick Hugo, whose love-hate relationship with his self-indulgent father, native intelligence, and sarcastic wit makes him a fascinating protagonist even while his self-doubt and sometimes whiny interventions into the growing chaos around him repeatedly give us pause. The climax, when it comes, is rapid-fire and unexpected and the epilogue perhaps a bit too neat but nonetheless satisfying. All in all, a densely-packed read with a lot to say if you have the time and patience to stick with it.