Catherine House: A college with dark secrets

Catherine House by Elisabeth ThomasCatherine House by Elisabeth ThomasCatherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

I recently learned the term Dark Academia, and while I’m probably too old to be a part of the subculture, I wish I’d had a name for it earlier. Schools and colleges with dark secrets have long been one of my favorite forms of literary catnip. It was probably inevitable that I’d be interested in Elisabeth Thomas’s Catherine House (2020), the story of a rudderless young woman attending a most unusual college.

The titular Catherine House is “not just a school, but a cloister.” Students who are accepted into its selective three-year program are confined to the rambling House and its grounds for the duration of their education. Catherine is cagey about its admissions criteria, but they don’t involve wealth or family legacy, so the novel’s cast is refreshingly more diverse than the usual white trust fund babies that often populate these exclusive-private-school stories. Catherine also believes that the mind fares best when it has a release valve, so some degree of debauchery is encouraged as long as students keep up with their coursework.

Ines, at first, is not so good at the latter. She was a good student when she first applied to Catherine, but between her application and her admission, something terrible happened and left her traumatized and adrift. She only goes ahead with her schooling because she fears worse things in the outside world. So she throws herself into the drinking and sex, but not so much her studies. Gradually, though, she begins to make friends, and also realizes that she won’t be able to stay unless she buckles down a bit.

Catherine House is a character in its own right, a labyrinthine mishmash of several architectural styles, filled with luxurious furnishings but falling apart if you look at it too closely. And there are secrets at its heart: the mysterious cutting-edge science that makes up Catherine’s most selective department, and its connection to a cultlike initiation ritual that awaits all of Catherine’s students.

Thomas spins a suspenseful yarn, and perfectly captures the dreamlike bubble that college can sometimes seem to be, and the ambivalent feeling of not being sure whether one wants to graduate and leave, or not. I’ve seen comparisons to The Secret History, but for me the vibe was more Waking the Moon — except where Sweeney was expelled, Ines gets to stay, which is a mixed blessing indeed.

Elisabeth Thomas

Elisabeth Thomas

The one hiccup for me was the speculative element, which wasn’t quite believable for me either as magic or as science. The effects of it are appropriately chilling, but the mechanics of it were kind of a head-scratcher. I can kind of see it if I squint, but I was hoping for a little more explanation. This may be an issue of genre expectations and going into literary gothic fiction with my sci-fi goggles on.

Here’s a spoiler. Highlight if you want to read it: The ending seems ambiguous on the surface, but there’s a little detail in it that made my blood run cold when I realized what it meant. And by the time you get to this point, you will be turning over the events of the plot, looking at them from different angles, wondering just how much of what happened was planned all along.

I used to announce, after finishing this book or that, that I planned to reread it regularly. I know myself well enough now that I know I can never really predict this, but I will say that Catherine House has a lot of the qualities that do often lead to rereads for me. I can definitely see myself going back to this book to see what other details I can catch, or just to sink into the gothic atmosphere. If you, too, enjoy stories of academia gone wrong, Catherine House should be on your TBR list.

Published in May 2020. A Most Anticipated Novel by Entertainment Weekly • New York magazine • Cosmopolitan • The Atlantic • Forbes • Good Housekeeping • Parade • Better Homes and Gardens • HuffPost • Buzzfeed • Newsweek • Harper’s Bazaar • Ms. Magazine • Woman’s Day • PopSugar • and more! A gothic-infused debut of literary suspense, set within a secluded, elite university and following a dangerously curious, rebellious undergraduate who uncovers a shocking secret about an exclusive circle of students . . . and the dark truth beneath her school’s promise of prestige. Trust us, you belong here. 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 a future of sublime power and prestige, and that its graduates can become anything or anyone they desire. Among this year’s incoming class is Ines Murillo, who expects to trade blurry nights of parties, cruel friends, and dangerous men for rigorous intellectual discipline—only to discover an environment of sanctioned revelry. Even the school’s enigmatic director, Viktória, encourages the students to explore, to expand their minds, to find themselves within the formidable iron gates of Catherine. For Ines, it is the closest thing to a home she’s ever had. But the House’s strange protocols soon make this refuge, with its worn velvet and weathered leather, feel increasingly like a gilded prison. And when tragedy strikes, 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 within the 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.

 


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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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2 comments

  1. Jana Nyman /

    Oooh, this sounds NEAT.

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