Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas // Book Review

I’m going to be honest with you, I think I could write an entire research paper about this novel because it is so good with a lot of themes and complex in a way that will make you think. I’m extremely impressed in this debut author and her work. Her writing is eloquent, descriptive, and deceptively literary. Without being confusing or mundane, Elisabeth Thomas creates a utopian world based on transcendentalist philosophy, art, and a little bit of darkness. This is going to be a tough review to write because I don’t want to give the plot away. I feel like this entire book is a spoiler, so read it!

Catherine House felt like an elaborate dream; a university that pays for your food, clothes, and comforts. You get a first rate education for free. The people who graduated from this school are court justices and leaders and business folks with tons of success and money. The only thing you must do is commit to three years (including summers) detached from the outside world. It kind of surprised me how many young people agreed to be removed from society for three years and I mean, no TV, no Internet, no news. No calls to your family. No visits. No leaving. Nothing. There was a few laments throughout the novel about how they wished they could get drunk off campus or go to the local bar and how they could have things that other college students would normally get. But then there were a lot of talks regarding how much Catherine House is needed.

Ines is your MC and from the start, you’re immersed in her little world. She’s skeptic about this experience; she wasn’t interested in getting a degree. She let her grades slip, she just did whatever she wanted, she drank and hung out with friends and really didn’t buy into this world. But as the story progresses, you see a change in Ines. She starts to care a little more. She picks a degree. She makes friends. She even has a few lovers. She actually studies! If you hate books that take place at a school and they never go to class, then you’ll love this book because they’re always studying, always taking tests, and always going to class. It’s actually a little bit of a drag during the middle when the focus was just going to class, studying, and passing certain courses. But I love the sense of camaraderie her friends have together. They’re all studying different things especially Catherine House’s very exclusive new materials study, but they find time to hang out and work together towards successfully completing the course.

But as she continues her three years at Catherine House, things start to go even further down the rabbit hole.

My thoughts

I thought this book would be more suspenseful or thriller-y especially with the synopsis reading similar to stories like Wilder Girls or even Ninth House. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how this book reads. I was expecting thriller, but got literary fiction and to be honest, I’m not mad about that. It’s quite gothic with its sense of dreaminess and insanity, but also extremely cerebral and will make you think at the end.

While I know people are upset with the lack of action in this book, I feel like Elisabeth Thomas did an excellent job creating a world that feels so normal, but has something sinister bubbling below the surface. There was a subconscious plot happening here beyond the scope of going to school. Catherine House in itself was a character and many of the students referred to the school as “Catherine.” Catherine will protect us. Catherine has everything you need. Catherine wants us to succeed.

I think my main motivation to finish the book is to find more answers. While they’re not written out for you, I think that in many ways, this book is super metaphorical, philosophical, and artistically created. It’s an artist’s expression; like looking at a piece of artwork and finding meaning. It would make sense with Elisabeth Thomas’s background in art history, but I love how cleverly it’s incorporated into the story.

I couldn’t help but think about one particular theme that kept coming up regarding the origins of the school and the plasm. Please bear with me because it’s obviously my over-thinking brain talking at this point. I kept on thinking about how this school was created by transcendentalist philosophers. Back in the day when Puritans were opening the Ivy Leagues and only letting white kids in, Catherine House was built on a different set of rules. They let all kids from different backgrounds into the school. I thought this was an interesting point and maybe thought it was a way to incorporate more characters of color, but transcendentalist philosophy was incorporated into many different aspects of the school and the plot.

The belief that through individualism, through unobstructed personal experience and self-reliance, you’re able to discover and become a better person. This is straight out of the transcendentalist handbook. You don’t have a past. You don’t have things getting in the way of the work you’re doing yourself. It sounds very much the philosophy of Catherine House. Catherine is your home. Catherine is your safe space to discover yourself without the constraints of society. Catherine keeps you learning while the rest of the world tries to lock you down.

And as you see the plasm and new materials studies start to become a bigger part of the conversation, so does some bigger transcendentalist themes. Specifically, the belief that we are all somehow interconnected with one another through some force beyond our scope of reality. I would suggest googling “The Over-Soul” which describes how our persons is related to the bigger scope of things; between people, plants and animals, the universe, and between God. I think of that quote from the 1995 Little Women movie where Jo says with transcendentalism there’s always an emphasis of perfecting oneself. I was thinking a lot about that quote towards the end of the book.

And I can only imagine that many folks were not fans of the ending. I’m not a big fan of endings that have no conclusion, but this particular one didn’t bother me. I think regardless of what happened to her after the truck door opened, it was the end. It was the end of the dream. It was the end of another chapter of Ines’s life. It was the end of Catherine House as she knew it. It’s abrupt and jarring like any time you wake up from something pleasant and see the brash light of day.

Overall, this was a stunner of a novel for me. I absolutely loved the atmospheric writing, the eloquence of Elisabeth Thomas’s words, and the complexity of this world she created. It’s super literary and with the tiny drops of fantasy and suspense, it’ll definitely get you thinking about life, death, our existence, and the universe.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I received a copy of this book from Harper Collins for free in exchange for an honest review. My opinions have not been influenced by the publisher or the author.

One thought on “Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas // Book Review

  1. Wow, this was a beautiful written, detailed review. I’m glad I know what to expect cuz I definitely thought it leaned toward horror or thriller. But something literary and celebral sounds super interesting.


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