Emily’s Pick of the Week: Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

Elisabeth Thomas’s Catherine House follows Ines through her years at the illustrious and mysterious Catherine House, an elite college tucked away in the woods of Pennsylvania where students are unable to bring any of their personal belongings or leave during their 3-year stay. Despite the acclaim and impressive alumni list, due to these unusual practices, little is known about the House to the outside world. That is, except for a highly publicized scientific experiment which resulted in the formation of the New Materials department and the continued study of a strange substance known as plasm – a science experiment that was ultimately written off by the world as a hoax due to its bizarre results. The Shiner Report, which is the name the experiment was published under, and the corresponding video demonstration shows the attachment of plasm-filled pins to a shattered vase which then miraculously reformed itself from the broken pieces.

And now every Friday, the students gather together under the watch of Catherine House’s Director as the New Materials department attach these same pins to their peers. When Ines’s roommate, Baby, disappears, she begins her search to determine just what plasm is and why the school is experimenting on its students.

As Cook Memorial’s self-appointed Frankenstein fanatic, it was no surprise to me that I was drawn to this book. I mean, a gothic tale of weird science and how unethical experimentation can both bolster and destroy personal relationships? Sign me up! Thomas weaves a fascinating narrative that draws on gothic classics with the added flare of the cultural update to the 1990s. The result is a claustrophobic story that leaves readers wishing for answers as much as Ines is. It was certainly an interesting title to pick up during the pandemic and stay-at-home order with its science fiction elements, institutional secrets, and the characters’ inability to leave.

The story alternates between casual day-to-day life at Catherine House and the fervent nighttime searching that Ines completes in order to understand plasm and uncover what happened to Baby. I found myself more drawn to the mystery portions, as I, too, really wanted to discover just what was happening to the students. Despite my preference, I appreciate the way that blending the two sides of Ines’s time at the House demonstrates the ways that extraordinary circumstances both do and don’t impact everyday life.

As Ines’s story becomes one of survival and escape, the mystery of plasm and New Materials continues to plague us. Overall, a book that stayed on my brain for days after I finished it that I would recommend for those who are similarly inclined towards eerie tales!

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