Book Review: “Catherine House” by Elisabeth Thomas

Cover of "Catherine House" by Elisabeth Thomas
Cover of “Catherine House” by Elisabeth Thomas

I’m back with another book review, and this time I’m reviewing “Catherine House” by Elisabeth Thomas! Here’s a quick summary so we know what it’s about:

“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, Viktória, 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.”

Content Warning:

There is mentioned character death and many graphic descriptions of pins being pushed into people’s bodies. There is also discussed and described depictions of human experimentation. If any of this might or does disturb you, I highly suggest you read carefully or skip reading this book entirely.

Worldbuilding Development: 2 out of 5 stars

The worldbuilding had some good concepts, but I wish that there was more explanation given to everything. From the school’s points system to the experimentation going on, there could have been so much more. As the students acclimated themselves to living in Catherine and caring about virtually nothing else, I felt creeped out. as a reader, which I assume is what the author was aiming for. However, I was also disappointed that absolutely none of the characters did anything to resist the virtual brainwashing they were going through. There was no real investigation into the school’s history, and even the reveal of the experimentation going on barely gave any details.

Character Development: 1.5 out of 5 stars

Ines and the other characters barely developed at all, mainly because all of them eventually fell into the same, strange mentality that Viktória wanted them to embody during their time at Catherine. It also didn’t help that Ines didn’t really have any motivations going into Catherine to begin with, which made me care even less about her.

Viktória herself was extremely creepy, manipulative, and controlling, which made her an effective villain. However, her motivations for doing what she did sounded extremely philosophical to the point of nonsensical. I wish there were more concrete reasons given for why Viktória did what she did, because she could have become a more compelling villainous/antagonistic character that way.

Plot Development: 1 out of 5 stars

Barely anything happened in the overall story. None of the characters drove the story, which was a compilation of all three years Ines spent during her time in Catherine. However, other than a few incidents (a character dies by the end of the first year, there’s a reveal of what’s going on behind the scenes in the third year), nothing much happens. There’s nothing in the story that acts as the main story other than reading Ines and all the other students acclimating themselves to living in Catherine in disturbing ways that I can’t spoil here (other than the pins being put in people’s bodies as I mentioned in the content warnings).

The ending also made little sense to me. Despite the revelation of human experimentation going on, no one does anything about it and the surviving characters just graduate as if nothing ever happened. Not only was this anti-climatic, but it was just overall disappointing.

Overall, I’m rating this book 1.5 out of 5 stars!

If you’re looking for a more plot-driven and character-driven academia-themed book, this is not the one for you. I’d recommend “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt if you want a book with similar vibes but with a better storyline.

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