Thais reviews Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

I loved this book. I loved it so much that I immediately binned the other review I had planned for this month, even though I do not have the slightest idea of how to properly describe and criticize this book. I know a lot of people hated Catherine House, so I wanted to make this clear from the get go—I loved this book.

I tend to love experimental works of fiction and Catherine House is very much that. It mixes gothic horror and the campus novel genre to tell a story better suited for a thriller, and it does so by using a structure that is unashamedly literary, heavy in atmosphere and imagery that drips with details and repetition of motifs.

There is still plenty of plot, even some elements that put the book in the speculative fiction category, but Catherine House is the story of a young college girl still in the grip of depression and guilt for falling with the wrong crowd and spiraling through a couple of neglected years that led to trauma and self-loathing, and you will get exactly that from the narration.

Ines is depressed and at times (and for long stretches of time at that), the book follows her depression, her inability to pull herself out of her fog, to follow up on her curiosity, to even be alarmed at the sinister undercurrent that seems surround this place to which she has just committed three years of her life. And that is a hefty commitment.

Because Catherine House is not just any fictional elite college, it is a place that demands its students distance themselves from everyone in their lives, including their past selves. Like a cult, Catherine House demands that each student gives themselves to the school completely, and we start a story with the new class of students that has done just that arriving at their new, secretive home.

Some of them are already a bit cautious, but for the most part, students are seduced into this free, top-tier institution that promises them success in life, if they surrender every part of themselves to it.

Even to me, it felt seductive. I tend to avoid any media that has elements of horror, because I struggle with insomnia as it is. I was reluctant to pick this up, but the beautiful prose lured me in, and soon I was moving deeper and deeper into the house with Ines, wondering with her what ‘plasm’ was and why it had so many of her classmates so obsessed, getting horrified with her by the creepy meditations the school imposed. But like Ines, I also felt drawn to School Director Viktória, even as I could tell from the start that she was evil.

Viktória might have actually been the most seductive part of all. Ines is bisexual and that is established early on in the narrative, so her obsession with the beautiful, mysterious older woman who runs Catherine House felt sexual at first. Ines did not yearn for Viktória quite that way, but her eyes still follow Viktória whenever she is around, keeping herself apart from everything and overly involved with everyone at the same time. In a room full of people, Ines only ever has eyes for Viktória, for every minute detail of her appearance and demeanor.

It is not romantic, but Ines’ gaze feels desire. She can’t stop drinking in Viktória, basking in her presence.

Viktória, for her part, seems all too happy to cast herself as nurturing and maternal, but also seems to display a predatory interest for Ines, never crossing the line, but often making sure she gets Ines alone and disarms her with long talks, probing questions into her interests, lingering touches.

At the end, I couldn’t help but feel more than allured by the school, Ines was allured by Viktória, and that the horror of the book lies primarily with this deeply dysfunctional relationship.

While Ines has a long-term relationship with one of male characters, Theo, even that felt like tethered to Viktória—Viktória tells her to be social, to immerse herself in the school, to make deep ties that anchor her to Catherine and Ines does.

Other than her friendships with her roommate Baby and with another young black woman called Yaya, all of Ines’ actions seem performative even to herself, a way to show that she’s becoming good, that she’s becoming worthy.

No matter how sinister the school got, I found it impossible to pull away and I think the main reason for that were all those entangled, complicated relationships between women (and mostly women of color at that).

I was so entranced by the relationships in the story that it didn’t bother me very much that the aspects of the book that tended a bit towards science fiction were never fleshed out or that a lot of the later reveals in the book are a bit predictable. I also imagine some people might have had problems with the pace of the story, but like I said before, I expected literary, experimental, with small touches of horror, and Catherine House delivers on that.

If you want a satisfactory plot with clear resolutions, this might not be the book for you, but if you are craving something moody, with lots of description of winter in rural Pennsylvania and complex (and sometimes infuriating) female characters, I think you will like this.

Danika reviews I Hate Everyone But You by Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin

I Hate Everyone But You by Gaby Dunn and Allison RaskinIt’s a shame that New Adult as a genre never really took off outside of Romance, because I think there’s a demand for it. The just-after-high-school years, whether they’re spent in college/university or elsewhere, have distinct challenges. I Hate Everyone But You is set during that time, following Ava and Gen as they are just beginning university. They have been inseparable best friends for years, and they stay in contact through constant emails and text messages.

The entire novel is written in these emails and text messages, making it a modern version of an epistolary novel. It’s an interesting format: it’s an extremely quick read, and because they are so close, Ava and Gen both share their innermost thoughts while providing their own narration of what happened. There is an element of unreliable narration because we only see it through their stories, but you can usually read between the lines to figure out what “really” happened. They deal with typical issues with that stage of life: dating, sex, drugs, and figuring out their identities. This isn’t shied away from, but because it’s texts and emails, these experiences are not told in detail as much as they are just matter of fact statements. They also bring their existing baggage to this new life stage: Gen comes from a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic father and enabling mother, and Ava deals with intense anxiety (and possible OCD?).

If you like Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin’s online presence, like their Just Between Us youtube channel, you’ll probably like this book. Their characters very much seem to match their personalities. The strongest part of this book is the bond between Ava and Gen. They fight–in fact, they bicker almost constantly. But that’s because they are open and honest with each other. They call each other out. They ask uncomfortable questions. They aren’t afraid to be their whole flawed selves with each other–and they have a lot of flaws.

For instance, Gen comes out as queer over the course of the book, and Ava can’t seem to let go of some variation of the question “Wait, are you gay now? Why do you like this guy: aren’t you gay now?” Ava has some ignorant questions about the queer community, to Gen’s irritation, but she means well. If you don’t want to see someone struggle through their heterosexist assumptions, this might be painful to read (she also asks Gen about a trans person’s genitals at some point). Transphobia is addressed here, but it may not be given the depth and time that it deserves.

Despite all these disagreements, though–despite their anger at each other or disappointment, despite lashing out and ignoring each other at times–there is never any question of their loyalty and love for each other. They are family. They are able to process ideas and emotions with each other, to bounce off ideas and try out new labels. They know that they will still be accepted by the other, no matter what conclusions they come to.

This isn’t a story for everyone. The format itself will put some readers off, though I found it absorbing. There is less of a plot and more of an exploration of these characters and their growth (apart and together) over time. On top of the heterosexism and transphobia included (though called out), there’s also a very questionable relationship between Gen and Charlotte, a T.A. almost twice her age with a propensity for sleeping with undergrads. As for me, though, I really enjoyed spending time with these characters: I liked that they were able to share even the most messy or uninformed thoughts and feelings with each other, and I found it to be a very quick, engrossing read. I look forward to diving straight into the sequel.

Danika reviews This One’s Going to Last Forever by Nairne Holtz

I wasn’t sure how to sum up This One’s Going to Last Forever, so here’s the blurb:

This One’s Going to Last Forever reflects both the naïve optimism of those who have yet to learn about love — and the cynicism of those who feel that by now they should know better.

Clara, a university student working at the McGill Daily, discovers that in love and politics, commitment is often more imagined than real. Kelly and Sonya share a bond that has less to do with love than with their dependence on each other and a succession of friends who supply them with heroin. A middle-aged man who performs drive-through weddings dressed as Elvis realizes, as he marries his first same-sex couple, that the only domestic partner he is ever likely to have is his ailing father. But when he ends his latest relationship, an unlikely friendship results.

The characters in these darkly comic stories and novella may be searching for love in all the wrong places, but they are also able to find love in the most unexpected places.

Nairne Holtz has a great skill for establishing characters and moods that really stick with you. Each story seems to contain a distinct moment more than a strict plot. Definitely the strongest part of This One’s Going to Last Forever is the characters. My favorite protagonist was Clare of the novella “Are You Committed?” She feels completely clueless compared to everyone around her at McGill: everyone–her roommates, her fellow journalists at the school newspaper, her friends–they all seem to know exactly who they are and what they’re talking about, and she’s still trying to gather enough facts to form an opinion. She doesn’t know what her sexuality is or the difference between the personal and political or what “Silence = Death” means. It makes her relatable.

A few times the book bumps into the gay pronoun problem: if you’re writing about two (or three or more) women, it’s really hard to establish which “she” you’re talking about, to it’s easy to overuse names. Overall, however, the writing is strong.

This One’s Going to Last Forever is a Lambda Literary Awards finalist in Lesbian Fiction. They are a terrific resource for finding quality queer books.

Have you read This One’s Going to Last Forever or another lesbian short story collection? What did you think of it?