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Monday, June 22, 2020

#ATBR2020 Review: Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas @jessmapreviews

Catherine House 
by Elisabeth Thomas

Continue below to see Jessica and I's very different view points on this debut novel.

Publisher: Custom House
Publish Date: May 12, 2020
320 Pages
Genres: Mystery, Thriller, Gothic

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, 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.
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.
My Review:
"Do you know what plasm is?"
"What do you mean? Plasm, the new material?'
"Yes, Plasm.  I mean, do you really understand what it is - exactly? Do you really get it?"
Replace Plasm with Catherine House and this is basically a conversation I'd probably have regarding the book.  This is a very atmospheric, gothic bit of a read and it reminds me of watching an Indie movie - a bit of a slow build up where you're eyebrows are pinched in trying to figure out what is going on.  Hence why my attention wouldn't be fully on the read and I would find myself putting it down every so often.  I considered DNFing it but then things got really interesting.... 
What I liked and didn't like about this book kind of are for the same reasons.  It's a bit of a mindfuck as you never really know what's happening.  There are hints and we get touches of this and that... but I never really saw it fleshed out completely.  I kind of liked being able to make my own assumptions but I also really wanted some answers.  Le sigh.  I like that we only get the view point of Ines but I also would've liked to see how everyone else took in this environment (especially Yaya).  It's got that creepy, gothic feel but I wanted it to be just a bit more... I felt at times I was reading it as if I was seeing everything in a haze.  I'm not sure if that had to do with the writing or that, like the plot, the characters also didn't seem fully solid.
Now, I think this was probably done intentionally for the purposes of what the plot seems to bring the reader.  And I applaud that this is a debut novel that gives us something different than what we have been used to being published.  Trust me, I'm a big flip flopper when it comes to ambiguity.  While I don't think this book will be for everyone, I think if you're even considering it, definitely pick it up and decide where you land for yourself.
Jessica's Review:

I think 2020 has been a great year for debut authors, and this is one of them. CATHERINE HOUSE by Elisabeth Thomas was different than what I was expecting it to be, and I really enjoyed it! I can already see this not working for all readers because some aren’t fans of ambiguity in their books. While this one isn’t laser focused on one plot point, there is enough detail to keep the story progressing at a good pace.
I was so intrigued to learn more about the mysterious Catherine House. A school that isn’t quite a college, but it’s not high school. A school where you basically agree to leave your past behind you and spend the next 3 years completely isolated on a private campus, but, you are guaranteed the future that you desire. Seems too good to be true, right? Well, let’s learn the secrets of Catherine House.
The highlight of this book for me was the Gothic theme. Thomas just immerses you in Catherine House and creates an atmosphere of mounting dread with each chapter and interaction. It was a very different reading experience because there isn’t a ton of details and the conversations had a different feel to them. It’s really hard to describe, but I think it’s best to experience. I think this was a solid debut and I’ll be looking for more from Elisabeth Thomas in the future.
4 stars

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