Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

Ines is running from her past and her bad decisions when a kind hearted teacher helps her get into the prestigious and mysterious Catherine House. It’s a university that’s highly selective, where students enter and have no contact with the outside world (no phone calls, no tv, no movies, no music, no personal effects, no past…) for the three years that they study there. Alumni have gone on to huge success, but there has also been some strange research into something called plasm that was controversial. And is the whole school one big cult? It doesn’t matter to Ines, though, she’s just happy to be safe. At least, at first….

I was initially drawn to this book because the words gothic and mansion were bandied about. It’s set in this amazing cluster of buildings that are maze like, crumbling and winding. At the start of the book, we are told that the buidling is meant to be one of the most haunted in America. We also find out that there’s a locked spooky lab in the basement and that the faculty might be doing experiments on the students. This is the kind of idea that I love. The cover art above, which may change, has the wrought iron outline of a gate, which is evocative because the students aren’t allowed to leave or go out.

I love the premise of this book. It’s part science fiction and part haunted house horror. But it doesn’t really deliver on that promise. The book focuses on Ines, who i got bored of pretty quickly because she’s a Mary Sue, that is, a character who is too perfect. I think this was in part intentional, so show that Ines was perhaps targeted by the school because she was perfect, something that comes into play more towards the ending. But it makes her very boring. She’s seemingly had an ok life, she’s slipped through the cracks a bit with her family, but she’s been able to trade on her good looks and coast along. When things go badly, she manages to get into the school. At the school, she’s considered a bit of an ice queen, someone hard to get close to, mysterious and very beautiful. People talk to her about how beautiful she is. She sleeps around a lot, but is never censured by her friends for it nor are there consequences, like jealousy, STD’s or pregnancy, or loss of social esteem. When her grades slip, she gets help. She frequently misses classes or simply doesn’t comprehend them, and yet somehow she passes? I think this is meant to imply that she’s just wanted by the school because she’s so perfect, but really? What’s so perfect about her other than the way she looks?

She’s also really depressed and sorry for herself for most of the book. Apparently, something happened and a girl died, in her past, and yet, she’s never sad about that. Even when a student dies, she moves on pretty quickly. She never gets therapy or medication for her depression, I think it’s meant to be sort of romantic. She’s a beautiful tragic figure… wandering the halls of the school, wanting to get at the mystery at the heart of the plasm experiments… no one ever hating her for being perfect, everyone getting along pretty well for a place full of university age people. (When I was at uni, there was plenty of high school like drama, gossip and in fighting, and slut shaming)

Also, every single page of this book describes food. They are constantly eating. And most of it seems to be cookies. About 50% of their diet, like most college students, is alcohol. However, Ines never gets fat. Perhaps that’s part of the experiment too?

OK, so our lead is too perfect, too mawkish and has no real consequences for her actions. You can certainly argue that that’s all part of being that age or the reason the school selected her, maybe? I think you could. The characters around her are all pretty great, so whilst she’s annoying, there’s a lot more to enjoy. I really liked Yaya and Baby, especially. I think they were interesting and vibrant people. Theo is also really interesting. I’m not going to tell you more about them, because you will enjoy the book more if you meet them while reading it.

The book tries to give us the dreamlike, escapism, cult vibes of the school as well as the rigorous and strange curriculum. I liked and didn’t like this. It kind of slows the book down, bogging us down in details sometimes when moving the plot forward would work better, but it does really pull you into the way the world works and how confusing it is. The routines of the place are really interesting, though some of the back story would have been more interesting than Ines sleeping with someone else and making unlikely poetic speeches. (Geez, Ines, no one talks like that… )

What the author also does really well is create this feeling of resisting the charm of the place, to wanting to sink into it, to perhaps sinking into it too much. The book has a sensual, dreamlike quality. The narrator is always smelling things, watching the moon, soaking in the sun, eating strawberries… sometimes it’s a bit much, tea tasting like summer gardens seems like something out of Strawberry Shortcake, but it’s like everyone is suspended in a dream of youth and beauty. Forever young, protected from life, and I think that’s done really well. You’re aware that some of the buildings are falling apart, which is unnerving, that there’s a weird lab in the basement that someone should probably be breaking into, and yet, there’s an endless summer and everyone loves each other. I really felt like this was well done. You can see why Catherine House is an obsession with some people, and how Ines running away in her life is in danger of falling into the dream and maybe not waking up.

There’s a central concept around a thing called plasm in this book. I don’t want to say much about it, because again, it’s better to read it and find out as you go, but I think it’s really interesting and is used so well as a device and a theme in this book.

Perhaps I didn’t love this book. The lead is so annoying, and instead of a great haunted house, spooky lab story, I got long descriptions of classes and a depressed young adult who moons about the place. But that said, I think there’s a lot in this book that’s really good, and I think a lot of people might like this. Maybe knowing that Ines is overly perfect and that the place isn’t haunted, right off the bat, leaves you able to let that go and just sink, much like the students, into the dreamlike quality of the book. The science fiction aspect of this story is also really good. And actually, the atmosphere of the whole works really well too. So whilst I might rate this a little lower than some other books I’ve shared on this blog, I would also say that it’s one to look out for, once you know what to expect. Also, I think this book would make a really great spooky movie. I would watch it.

Read It If: a flawed book with a Mary Sue lead, there’s plenty of darkness and a good premise to enjoy here, even if the haunted mansion does not deliver on actual ghosts.

Thank you Harper Collins for the ARC of this book for review. All opinions are my own, honest thoughts, as always.

Catherine House is out on 5/12/20

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