Review: Catherine House by Elizabeth Thomas

Catherine House by Elizabeth Thomas

Published: May 12, 2020 by Custom House

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Rating:

Synopsis: A seductive, gothic-infused tale of literary suspense — the debut of a spectacular new voice — about a dangerously curious young undergraduate whose rebelliousness leads her to discover a shocking secret involving an exclusive circle of students . . . and the dark truth beneath her school’s promise of prestige.

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: This is another book that I was so torn about that I had no idea how to rate or review it. I found that I really loved the story but I can certainly see its flaws. I have seen five star reviews and one star reviews and frankly I agree with the points of both of them, so that means that I feel a three star rating is probably the most accurate.

Ines was a good narrator for this book, to an extent. Her rebellious nature made her a good conduit to see through some of the mystery shrouding the school. But it also meant that she was erratic as a narrator. Occasionally she would be trying to pry open mysteries and then the rest of the time she was getting blackout drunk and having random sex with people she couldn’t remember in the morning.

I found the school, and the mystery surrounding it, very interesting as well. The staff of the school. The students. And the journey of those students from their first year to their third year. That was all fantastic and drew me into the story.

The ending was okay. I saw it coming a mile off but it was well written and so I didn’t mind too much. But it wasn’t great either. What sold me on it was the last few lines of the book. It threw me for a loop with the possibilities that would never be realized. Had everything gone according to plan? Was the gig up? What was going to happen when that door opened? I’ll never know! That expectation sold me on the ending entirely.

At the end I was left with a book that I thoroughly enjoyed but I recognize all the reasons I should not have liked it. It’s a conundrum. I just can’t deny that I enjoyed it immensely.