Book Review: “Catherine House” by Elisabeth Thomas

“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.

Catherine House is one of the most polarizing reads of the year, and it’s easy to see why. Every aspect of this book falls into the cliche “not for everyone.” I can see why people love it and I can see why people hate it. I, as with most times I read a polarizing novel, fall somewhere in between.

There are things I really enjoy about this novel, but I also have some major criticisms. And yet, I can’t even describe this novel as “meh.” Because it isn’t quite that. It’s something, and something mostly positive. I didn’t have a bad experience reading this book at any rate.

Let’s start with the things I like. I really like the writing style. It tends toward lyrical without being overly flowery. It’s the kind of writing that flows and keeps you reading with ease. Honestly, it’s what I enjoyed the most from Thomas’ debut.

I also like the characters. Would I call them new favorites? Probably not. But I cared about them while reading, falling in love with their quirks and friendships. Ines, Yaya, Anna, Theo, Diego, and Nick are one of those groups of friends you see goofing around and wish you were a part of.

Ines could be a frustrating character at times, and I don’t think she was the best protagonist for the story (more on that later), but I ultimately liked her. Yaya surprised me as a character because she’s introduced in a way that made me think she’d be the stereotypical mean girl, but she’s not at all. I think she may even be my favorite character.

Unfortunately, that’s where the things I liked end. Sort of. Okay, so this book has absolutely no plot. The reader is just following Ines through her three years at Catherine. I don’t usually mind stories without plot, but in a supposed mystery story there should be one. I’m not even sure this is actually a mystery novel, given how ambivalent Ines usually is about said mystery. Ines isn’t really even an active player in the story; things just happen to her.

The story would’ve been more exciting, mysterious, and engaging had it been from Theo’s perspective or had Ines been studying plasm. Which would’ve required her to be an entirely different character. But it would’ve made for a more thrilling read. As it stands, I felt like I was being held at a distance from the actually interesting parts of the story. I still don’t fully know what plasm is and I’m not sure Elisabeth Thomas does either.

Would I read something by Elisabeth Thomas again? I think so. But, as addictive as this book is, it just doesn’t pack that punch I really wanted. Would I recommend this book? Probably not, because of how divisive it is. If you have the same taste in books as me, you’ll probably think this book is okay at best. And no one wants to live in a house that’s just okay.

Mixed race Black and Latina bisexual MC, bisexual Korean woman, Black man, gay man, & depression

Suicide, excessive drinking, depressive episodes, & forced nudity (non-traumatic for the character)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Have you read Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas? What are your thoughts? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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