Today’s book review is of Elisabeth Thomas’s debut novel Catherine House. I read this novel as an e-book, and the cover is so lovely and I liked the story so much that I am going to be buying a physical book for my collection.
I don’t care if I there isn’t enough room on my shelves for more books! It’s still not hoarding, agreed?
Elisabeth Thomas’s website says that Catherine House will “leave readers breathless”. But I felt something better: a hunger. I had a craving to keep reading this book, not necessarily because I was on the edge of my seat, but because I was rooted in place and the words were my sustenance. The weight of imagery and Ines’s almost apathetic despair and even the artistic terminology built a story that felt just right for me.
I read some reviews that said they felt like it got too slow, or that something was missing, but I guess for me, it didn’t feel that way because it felt how I feel. It was like reading about a dream I’ve had, or a memory I can’t quite place, and it was comforting.
My one-sentence review: It is a hauntingly beautiful story.
Ines is selected to attend Catherine House, an exclusive and very mysterious three-year college. At Catherine House, Ines takes typical college classes such as Intro to Philosophy or Intro to World Religions, and eventually concentration-specific classes such as Russian and Italian Futurisms (she decides to pursue art), but the school is anything but typical.
After Baby, her roommate, is sent into the tower as punishment, Ines and their friends learn that Baby has died. Baby was obsessed with/passionate about plasm, a substance that an entire concentration had been created around. Part of the book revolves around defining plasm and how it’s used, but the way it’s described as being a part of everything and tethering everything together reminded me of the moldy house in Mexican Gothic, where the mold attaches itself to people, rendering them unable to leave the premises.
Eventually, Ines is sent to the tower, and is faced with the gruesome decision to make Catherine House her permanent home.
Catherine House explores the consequences of what it’s like to be a player in a world where people want to play god.
While the story isn’t overtly sinister, it does raise a lot of moral questions, and the passages of time where Ines is either languishing or making the best of it each have a place in revealing important information. Ines’s days meld together, and I have gone through long periods of time like that, where one day doesn’t end and another begins but rather time is meaningless and you feel like you’re just going through motions and nothing matters. Sometimes it’s hard to see life getting better when you feel like you don’t deserve it or that it doesn’t matter in the end. So it spoke to me a lot in that way.
The descriptions of the school and grounds were vivid and intriguing. There was almost a magic to Catherine House that reminds me of secluded schools in other stories. It just seems dark and grand and fun, and maybe makes me miss college a little.
(Although my undergraduate degree is in hospitality management, and if I think of a way to spice that up for a gothic novel, maybe one day I’ll write it.)
Another aspect I liked about Catherine House was the way Thomas melded art and science. Elisabeth Thomas is actually an archivist at an art museum, so it’s really cool that she was able to incorporate this part of her life into the story. I do not have a lot of knowledge in the art world, but that didn’t detract from recognizing the way art is used to add depth to the story.
Have I convinced you to read Catherine House yet? Let me know in the comments!
To learn more about Elisabeth Thomas and Catherine House, visit Thomas’s website at Elisabeth Thomas (elisabeththomasbooks.com).