Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

CatherineHouse

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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.

Read the full description on Amazon, or visit Goodreads to learn more.

I received a copy of this from NetGalley; this in no way has influenced my opinion.

So this book. I read it all in a single sitting, and I’m really still trying to gather my thoughts and opinions about it. As soon as I finished, I thought “5 stars”, no doubt. As you can see, I’ve lowered that to 3.5 stars, albeit reluctantly.

This is a story about a girl in a house. She and her peers cannot leave; they can have no connection to the outside world. They have chosen, and been chosen by, Catherine House for one reason or another. They are there to learn, and work hard, and excel in a rigorous interdisplinary education. This is dark academia at its most oblique; it is moody and mean and introspective.

I will warn that this book put me in a funk. The main character is pretty severely depressed. Her environment is completely toxic and her thoughts tend to pull her deeper into her surreal and nightmarelike state of mind. It felt extremely real, which was both the highest achievement of the novel and the biggest trigger warning. It felt especially relevant in this strange time in the world right now, where the days are bleeding together and the passage of time is marked only by when our bodies need to eat.

I’d like to talk more about the introspective tone I mentioned in the previous paragraph. In the book, one of the characters describes the main protagonist, Ines, as having a “sideways” perspective of the world, although she wasn’t particularly academically intelligent. I think that applies to the book itself, in a strange way. Ines takes us through the story in a haze of depression and drunken glee; she overlooks important things and focuses intently on insignificant details. We learn about the setting, the all-powerful Catherine House, in small bits and pieces as Ines pores over details about wallpaper or bouncy houses. No writing in this book is what you will expect it to be. There is nothing typical about the dialogue or the tone or the plot or the characters. It is strange because it seems like everything we learned felt so trivial, but when added together, the details form a more complete whole than most other books can hope to achieve. We know the characters by their quirks and mannerisms instead of the color of their eyes or where they are from.

This book feels like the strange nostalgia of dusk near the end of summer, or the unsettling emptiness of an airport early in the morning. It’s driving down a deserted road in the night or returning to a temporary home when traveling abroad. It’s not that the book described these feelings, exactly, but the emotions it made me feel were similar. It was rich and all-encompassing, a beautiful sort of sadness.

Where the book is, I’d say, nearly flawless in terms of atmosphere, it falls a bit short when it comes to the plot itself. It is a bit mysterious and strange, but quite predictable, even as someone who doesn’t read a lot of thriller-type novels. This is why the star-rating has been reduced. Honestly, I don’t mind books that are all moodiness and little plot (see also: my complete devotion to Murakami), but for the sake of this being advertised around a “dark truth”, I think it won’t quite meet some readers’ expectations.

This review ended up being several paragraphs longer than I intended, so if you made it all the way here, thank you for sticking with me. This book made me feel icky and sad, and I really loved it for that. It’s been a while since a book has made me feel so deeply, and as a reader, I don’t care how dark those feelings are.

I would highly recommend this to fans of Murakami. A few other points of comparison I can offer are The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin and (strangely enough) Fallen by Lauren Kate, with a dash of Roshani Chokshi’s beautiful prose.

Sad Happy reading 🙂

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