“Trust us, you belong here.”
Would you go three years with no music, no television, no family, for the promise of a lifetime of success?
Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas is a young adult dark academia novel with a sprinkle of science fiction about Catherine House, a secretive boarding school. I don’t mean secretive as in it just has the odd secret society or two.
In Catherine House students go to this school in the woods-or as the faculty call it, “a community of minds” (Thomas, 8), exchanging any and all contact with the outside world for the promise of emerging as the best of the best; alumni have gone on to become supreme court justices, prize-winning authors, and presidents to name a few of their accomplishments. Thomas herself describes the school as a “cult-like college” (Debutiful).
Students are desperate at times to belong to this bizarre community (cult?), at the risk of throwing away their own individualism, or even their own lives.
I absolutely loved not only the dark academia element (which I am a sucker for) but the slow-burn gothic elements which pulled me in from the very beginning.
Dark academia is an element, aesthetic, or genre that I have found often in writing or film. The Secret History by Donna Tartt is sometimes seen as what made dark academia popular as a literary genre, but I am sure she was not the first to write in the genre. Dark academia, from my understanding, is a focus on topics like higher education, writing, the arts, or classic literature to name a few things. For me, dark academia conjures my childhood dream: Sitting in an old gothic-style library with dark shadows and obscure books to discover.
What I love about it the genre is not only the fact that it often focuses on literature, but it raises above everything a passion for self-discovery and learning, something I have had since I learned to read. For me, reading dark academia literature makes me feel at home. These characters live and breathe their passion, usually an intense passion for learning, which is all I have felt for years. I have noticed many of the books have references or influences of both classic and gothic literature or art. But what about “dark”? There is also an underlying focus on longing, existentialism, pondering mysteries, and even death. Sometimes the genre plays into the idea of getting too immersed in your passion, almost to a fault. It’s a genre I’m still learning about and trying to wrap my head around defining it, but it is truly fascinating to me.
Catherine House captures this almost obsessive pursuit for knowledge perfectly, while also exposing the flaws in this pursuit.
With it being described as a gothic-inspired book, atmosphere is crucial, and the setting was carefully constructed. Thomas worked hard to achieve this: “I wanted this school—and the story—to feel strange, sideways, almost palpably dreadful.” (Write or Die Tribe) Catherine House, the building, is a character that I just want to understand the intricacies of. The unknown secrets surrounding the school, the students disappearing, and the complete insularity from the world is incredibly unsettling. These characters cannot leave for three years, and as I read, a little voice in the back of my mind whispered, “why can’t they?”
To add to the unease, anyone who strays from expectations is threatened with being sent to the “Catherine House Restoration Center” “to readjust your relationship to Catherine and your environment” (Thomas, 11). From the beginning, the characters are told if they do not comply to this strict school, they are sent to what to me sounds incredibly ominous (but note, it’s still in Catherine House. Even in defying the school, they are not allowed to leave).
Although atmosphere is crucial to the book, we can’t forget about the characters. While Thomas’ novel has been the discussion of many interviews, like any novel it does not go without critique. As a fan of this book, I was very intrigued by a common issue people had with the novel: Ines, the protagonist.
“I think [one of] the three biggest things that didn’t work for me in this story [was] Ines.” (The Bookish Chick)
“[Ines] doesn’t need Catherine House, she needs some help. Actual help.” (Goodreads)
“Ines is a terrible character.” (Goodreads)
“I don't understand what Thomas intended by creating such a frustrating character.” (Goodreads)
I am very interested in the discussion, especially the criticism, of Ines.
Ines went through trauma before the novel starts, and I greatly appreciated the representation of Ines’ struggle with trauma and arguably symptoms of depression. Ines is never diagnosed with a mental illness, and I have no desire to diagnose her. However, at a time in my life I was someone who struggled to get out of bed, to care about school, or even about my own health, and I saw myself in Ines.
Reading this book, I saw this girl who had huge dreams of success while wearing the proverbial weighted vest of all the pressure around her. I saw myself, junior year of college, completely floundering to honestly care about life in the rush of intense classes and preparing to apply to graduate school. I saw Ines, and for once I thought to myself, “It’s not just me”. She may be unlikeable to some, but I think characters like her are important, in this case those who desire success while also struggling with motivation.
Characters don’t need to be likeable to make the novel good or enjoyable. They can offer so much more than likeability. We read to see differences as well as similarities, and these may be different morals or values or simply an abrasive personality. In my eyes, Ines offers insight into struggling to succeed. She is an academic that is imperfect, something I struggle to allow for myself. Ines is a young adult without an outlined path or one clear determination, and I think that’s realistic for a lot of people. Also, people don’t need to be likeable. Ines isn’t putting pretenses for other characters nor readers. In a world with many women being told to smile, Ines turns and walks away, and I admire that.
For me, I think the part that she is an unlikeable woman especially plays into some of the comments I saw.
I have to wonder how these critiques would change if Ines were a man. I have noticed common critiques of women characters as “unlikeable”, which I don’t see as much for men characters, who although have similar characteristics to these “unlikeable” women, are more often described as “moody” and mysterious”.
No matter the gender though, give me an unlikeable person who does not become stereotypically “likeable” over their arc. I find those characters interesting, because being unlikeable means these characters are not changing for someone or for expectations, but also, we simply don’t see those characters often.
Elisabeth Thomas writes some great characters, and I think she brings these characters into inventive situations to bring out the truest form of themselves, whether that form be likeable or not. In these terrifying scenarios, Ines and her friends drop all pretenses and are their raw, true selves, which I found refreshing.
NPR lists Catherine House as one of the best books of 2020, and if this review caught your eye, I would definitely recommend giving it a read. I highly recommend Thomas’ book to fans of books like The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, or other dark academia novels.
In an interview with Debutiful, Thomas states she is currently working on her sophomore novel. Catherine House is Thomas’ debut novel.
Book and author photographs from Goodreads.com