Book: “Catherine House” by Elisabeth Thomas
Publishing Info: Custom House, May 2020
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.
Book Description: You are in the house and the house is in the woods. You are in the house and the house is in you . . .
Catherine House is a school of higher learning like no other. Hidden deep in the woods of rural Pennsylvania, this crucible of reformist liberal arts study with its experimental curriculum, wildly selective admissions policy, and formidable endowment, has produced some of the world’s best minds: prize-winning authors, artists, inventors, Supreme Court justices, presidents. For those lucky few selected, tuition, room, and board are free. But acceptance comes with a price. Students are required to give the House three years—summers included—completely removed from the outside world. Family, friends, television, music, even their clothing must be left behind. In return, the school promises its graduates a future of sublime power and prestige, and that they can become anything or anyone they desire.
Among this year’s incoming class is Ines, who expects to trade blurry nights of parties, pills, cruel friends, and dangerous men for rigorous intellectual discipline—only to discover an environment of sanctioned revelry. The school’s enigmatic director, Viktória, encourages the students to explore, to expand their minds, to find themselves and their place within the formidable black iron gates of Catherine.
For Ines, Catherine is the closest thing to a home she’s ever had, and her serious, timid roommate, Baby, soon becomes an unlikely friend. Yet the House’s strange protocols make this refuge, with its worn velvet and weathered leather, feel increasingly like a gilded prison. And when Baby’s obsessive desire for acceptance ends in tragedy, Ines begins to suspect that the school—in all its shabby splendor, hallowed history, advanced theories, and controlled decadence—might be hiding a dangerous agenda that is connected to a secretive, tightly knit group of students selected to study its most promising and mysterious curriculum.
Combining the haunting sophistication and dusky, atmospheric style of Sarah Waters with the unsettling isolation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Catherine House is a devious, deliciously steamy, and suspenseful page-turner with shocking twists and sharp edges that is sure to leave readers breathless.
Review: Thank you to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this novel!
If you are going to market a book as a Gothic novel, I am most likely going to be interested based on that alone. The isolated creepiness of the average Gothic novel gets me amped, and I’m glad that more and more authors, both adult and YA, are paying more attention to this genre. And when you throw in a mysterious boarding school/university setting, that’s practically catnip for me! “Catherine House” by Elisabeth Thomas, therefore, caught my eye. I downloaded it from NetGalley, eager to dive into a Gothic boarding school thriller with twists, turns, and nefarious misdeeds. Unfortunately, “Catherine House” missed the mark for me, by quite a bit.
Starting with the positive, this book has a LOT of potential. As I said, it both aspires to be a Gothic read set in a mysterious school that serves as alternative to university, and it promises to give its graduates all sorts of power and keys to mysterious opportunities. It can make powerful politicians, business people, power players of all stripes, and all you have to do is master it’s odd and super secretive curriculum and devote your entire life to Catherine House for three years, with no contact to the outside world. Ines, our protagonist, is fleeing a checkered past in hopes of starting on the right foot and with huge advantages to a new life. It’s pretty standard fare for this kind of book, and that’s not to say that that’s a bad thing. I liked seeing the odd quirks to Catherine House, the little shifts from what one might consider a ‘normal’ college experience, from food to decor to class types. There is also the fact that students at Catherine, Ines included, are involved in strange rituals involving something called plasm, and pins that you can insert into your body that can help harness the potential of this so called plasm…..
I mean, I think. Honestly, this wasn’t very clear to me. While it’s very possible I may have missed something, it seemed to me that the sticking point of the mystery of this book was at the plasm storyline and what it does, and why Catherine House wants to mess with it. So the fact that I could have missed the big conflict resolution doesn’t really imply that there was much detail or due diligence paid to said conflict. There is also the plot line where Ines’s roommate Baby has tragedy befall her all in hopes of fitting into the strict and high standard mold that Catherine House has, but I didn’t really get the sense that Ines was terribly concerned with it. Sure, I was TOLD that Ines was concerned, it’s even in the plot description. But there is very little actual time devoted to Ines feeling guilty, or suspicious, or vengeful over Baby’s fate. When that is touted as a main plot point in the description, I expect it to be more at the forefront. It just felt like more time was put into describing the quirks and strangeness of this place than there was devoted to the actual main plot. Because of this, I was mostly confused and uninvested throughout the narrative. Which is a shame, because there were so many good ideas here that had a lot of potential.
Suffice to say, I was quite disappointed with “Catherine House”. Hopefully the next time I find my literary catnip I will have a better experience.
Rating 4: While this book had a lot of promise, ultimately I didn’t feel like it committed to any of the themes it set out to explore.