Monday, May 11, 2020

Review: Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

Catherine House
Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas
Custom House
Publication Date: May 12th, 2020
Hardcover. 320 pages

About Catherine House:

"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, Vikt√≥ria, 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."

I didn't really know what to expect going into Catherine House, but I quickly fell in love with it and may now consider it a favorite. Catherine House is a weird book. I thought it was beautiful, haunting and utterly depressing.

Catherine House is about a girl and her eventual group of friends who navigate a strange and intense new university-type experience. They are to spend three years studying at this elite, private, and reclusive school where they will be unable to leave or contact the outside world for the entirety of the three years; they are essentially cut off from the outside world. The workload is nearly impossible, the weekly 'rituals' are undecipherable, the food is a bit rich, no one really knows what's going on, and the elusive idea of studying 'plasma,' a material that no one who is not a student of the new materials quite understands, is always at the back of everyone's minds.

However, Catherine House is also a difficult book to describe. On the one hand, it's very much a 'boarding school' style of story in which students attend a university-style program and are overwhelmed with work, party whenever possible, and generally act as young adults do. However, that's sort of where the comparison ends for me as it very much stands apart from other books of this nature in a lot of ways. One of the ways it stood apart was in how normal it sometimes felt. I know that this might sound contradictory based upon how weird and abnormal this book also was, but the way in which the students interacted with one another and dealt with their near-impossible workloads was so authentic and understandable. The areas of study may include the mysterious 'new materials' that focus on 'plasma,' but you can also study art history or mathematics. There weren't extremely strict guardian-type figures overseeing every single thing the students did (in fact, oversight was fairly nonexistent) and they were most left to their own devices, which I feel like is somewhat more how college functions, with occasionally punishable actions. I feel like most boarding school type of stories have a weird distancing from reality where the actions of the characters are never quite true to how people act or the way the school functions isn't quite realistic, but I felt differently this time. With Catherine House, I really felt like I could understand what it might be like to attend this school, which in turn helped me to understand the different actions undertaken by various students and to understand why things happened the way they did.

Ines, our protagonist and sole POV, is a difficult character to describe. She doesn't really care about a lot, yet she also does in her own unique way that we, as the readers, can begin to discern throughout the course of the story. I loved all the different natural relationships that existed in this book, both friendship, romantic, and sexual, and I found all them very natural and forced or overdone. We only follow Ines' POV, but we get snippets into everyone's lives through her own observation and narration, and I enjoyed seeing everyone's unique experiences. Watching Ines evolve over the course of this story and observing her interactions with various characters were easily some of the best and most fascinating parts of this book. As much as Catherine House does have an interesting plot and premise, it is also very much a character study. It's about how each of these characters reacts to their intense and unpredictable living situation at Catherine.

Catherine House is fairly slow-paced, but at the same time it tends to move around in time at random intervals that occasionally shifts the pacing a bit. I didn't mind this at all for once--it actually seemed to benefit and fit with the style of the story and writing extremely well in this book. This story and the characters are somewhat chaotic and often feel lost among the mire of their schoolwork and 'purpose' of being at Catherine in the first place, so it only makes sense that the writing style might reflect that attitude in its own unique way.

Thomas also has a beautiful prose that is both excessive and dry at the same time and has some of the best descriptions of settings, people, and feelings that I've read in a while. The way that she manages to convey how Ines feels or what she experiences was done in such a vivid way that I found completely engaging.

To round off this review, I'll comment on the areas where my personal opinions will really come out because from a personal standpoint, I really connected with a lot of what Ines struggled with. It's not that we have a similar situation or background in life--in fact, I'd say we are very different--but there is something about her sort of... empty (?) image of the world and this struggle to understand her place in it that I couldn't agree with or feel more deeply than I already do. There are also times when other characters describe things that I know I've felt, such as when one character describes a time in her past when she saw a girl out in public who looked so happy that it made her cry from anger because she knew that that would never be her, that she would never someone that happy because it wasn't possible and she would always be alone with herself, and I know I've also felt those feelings. There are so many one-off seeming casual sentences that just felt like a gut punch, like some was reading my thoughts, such as when Ines describes another characters by saying "Sometimes I felt she had only learned to be herself by pretending," Ines wondering what it would be like to be a girl that is soft and sweet rather than being the person that she was. It was all these little things that really put this book over the top for me and made me love it as much as I have. For me, it felt authentic.

Lastly, in some of the more negative reviews I've seen some comments about the excessive drinking and casual sex in Catherine House, and I don't really understand this as an issue. If someone doesn't like that sort of content in general, then sure, I absolutely understand why that would be a turn off, but for those that find it unrealistic or distracting--I find it pretty believable and fitting! Both of these activities are perfect examples of what college-aged students who are cut off from the world around them for three years, under immense, unbelievable academic pressure, and surrounded by people their own would engage in as forms of stress-relief and just to have fun. I actually really liked how casually bisexuality and other forms of identity were woven in--it was never even mentioned outright, just noticeable based on the different people the authors notes certain characters would sleep with.

Overall, of course I've given Catherine House five stars. I don't know if this book will be for everyone--in fact, I already know that it's not. But if you have an open mind and you love thinking about characters and exploring the intricacies of strange-yet-not-strange setting with some rather futuristic thinking, then you should absolutely give Catherine House a try.

*I received an ARC of Catherine House in exchange for an honest review. This has no effect on my rating or enjoyment of the novel.*


  1. I've had this on my list to read and I'm so glad I read your review, because now I'm sold!

  2. This sounds like such a quirky little book, great review!

  3. This sounds like a really interesting read. My reading tastes have trended toward light and fluffy during the pandemic, so I probably wouldn't read a depressing book right now, but perhaps in the future when we finally get back to life as normal.

    1. Yeah, it's probably not the best option for something lighter, haha--I was actually surprised that I took to it so much right now!