I still remember the emotional gut punch of reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go for the first time, and likewise the fascination I had with Donna Tartt and The Secret History – way back when that was her only novel and Lit students thought she was cool because she was friends with Bret Easton Ellis. Oh the late Nineties/early Aughts.
I found Catherine House to be an atmospheric hybrid of both. Told from the point of view of Ines, a young woman running away from some tough experiences and running out of options after high school, the premise immediately intrigued me. Ines is offered a place at Catherine House, a three year full time university somewhere in rural Pennsylvania. Those accepted receive fully paid tuition, room and board. But there’s a catch: No contact with the outside world. No media, family visits, internet, shopping, you name it. Cut off.
This novel was much more atmospheric and immersive than I expected, with the only detours from the Catherine House setting taking place in a few of Ines’s brief memories. I struggled to “like” the protagonist but I interpreted that to be by design – a nice parallel mystery to solve. One the one hand, what is really going on at Catherine House and its “New Materials” department? Why does everything feel not quite right? On the other, what happened to Ines to drive her toward her choices and difficulty with relationships? Together these questions were compelling enough to keep me reading, and the eerie atmosphere and tone really worked as the mystery continued to unfold. I didn’t ultimately get that emotional gut punch (or even all the answers to my questions), but I appreciated the components Elisabeth Thomas brought to table with this one!