When I first started reading this book, I couldn't quite figure out why the ratings for CATHERINE HOUSE were so poor. Ines was a desperate, anxious, introverted girl filled with insecurities and a sense of fatalism that cause her to act out wildly within the confines (or prison?) of her new school, a university-like institution that doesn't call itself a university, where scholarship is given to all who are accepted but expulsion is as easy as the money, and wine flows freely like soma to opiate the masses.
And then I continued to read, and CATHERINE HOUSE became less like THE SECRET HISTORY's younger, butterfly clip-wearing little sister, and more like a 80s B-movie version of VITA NOSTRA. You see, there's a movie called The Langoliers by Stephen King that starts off really great and has all this amazing build-up, so that by the time you're about to reach the climax of the film, you're on the edge of your seat. And then you find out what's really going on and you go "whaaaat?" or you laugh. You laugh, and laugh, and then you cry, because those are your hopes being dashed on screen in dreadful CGI.
I made a shelf on Goodreads called "the langoliers effect" for books that start off good but are effectively ruined by the "payoff" (or lack thereof). More than the pretentious language of the book, and the syrupy-surreal flow of the plot (which I actually liked), I feel like a lot of readers were turned off by how ridiculous the "secret" of Catherine House is, and how it doesn't even end in a particularly satisfying way. There are books out there that make a point of confusing the reader as part of their premise, and many of those are cyberpunk novels, and many of those are Philip K. Dick novels, but I don't think this book was meant to be one of them. I can't help but feel like Elisabeth Thomas had several conflicting ideas for how this book was going to go and tried to combine all those threads to the best of her ability, maybe liking them all so much that she didn't want to scrap any of them.
I do like the 90s setting and the whole "Pleasure Island" by means of Pinocchio way that the students drowned in their excesses. Likewise, the intellectual snobbery and impossible-to-please professors made me wonder just how much of this book was informed by the author's own Yale education, especially when the main character, Ines, talks about how her school never leaves her. Yale is also a prestigious institution, and though I've never been, I imagine that because of the wealthy and privileged student body, they have access to a wide variety of excesses that probably result in wild parties that serve as a stark contrast to the draconian rigors of academia.
This was a debut novel and it definitely feels like one, and not in a good way. I would read more from this author because I do like her dreamy style but I can't say that I would recommend CATHERINE HOUSE now that I've finished it.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!
2.5 out of 5 stars