A debut novel with a gothic twist, The Cloisters by Katy Hays scratched my itch for a plot-driven story that would offer up some escapism for the snowy March we’ve been experiencing here in Calgary. Taking place in present-day New York City over one hot and sweaty summer, this is a dark look at obsession and the dangers of becoming too invested in something – a person, theory, or belief. Most of this book simmers below the surface, so if you’re looking for something that provides shocking twists or turns, this one isn’t for you, but if its a puzzle with no clear answer you’re after, it may provide just what you’re looking for. And for those who are interested, The Cloisters as a setting is a real place you can research here.
Ann is excited to have finally left her small town behind, arriving in New York City to work a summer position at the world-renowned Metropolitan Museum of Art. When she arrives for her first day, she learns of a mix-up in staffing, and told she no longer has a job there. But Patrick, the curator at The Cloisters, a medieval library and museum offers her a job instead. Relieved to find herself useful (and able to pay her rent) Ann accepts. There she meets Rachel, who she’ll work closely with on the research projects Patrick assigns them. Rachel is extremely wealthy, secretive and beautiful. It’s obvious she’s having a relationship with Patrick, (who is decades older than her) but she also seems to have hidden connections and influences over many of the other employees, including Leo, the attractive gardener with a wild streak. Ann is running from a painful family history and a mother too afraid of the world to travel, so she’s relieved to be in a place bursting with opportunity, but she’s also naïve to the ways in which the people around her are manipulating situations for their benefit. Instead she is focused on the research ahead of her; tarot cards, and the meaning they held back in the 15th century. Working with priceless artifacts she is tasked with determining whether these tarot cards were used to tell the future, and what that supposed power means for people today.
The setting for this book is a character in itself – The Cloisters offers respite to its staff and visitors from the heat of the urban summer, but it also threatens with its many secrets and dangers. The Cloisters is known for its medieval gardens, and for authenticity’s sake it grows many of the same plants that would have been grown back in Europe during the medieval period. Because of this, it is full of poisonous plants that used to be used for medicinal purposes, that modern science has now replaced or identified as lethal. Knowing this book is a mix of suspense and thriller, you can likely guess where this thread is going, but without giving away any spoilers I can assure you there are some mysterious happenings, and the police will make more than one visit to the Cloisters over the summer.
My one complaint about this book is the development of its protagonist, Ann. Even though the entire story is told through her eyes, she remains inaccessible for most of it. As a reader, I never felt close to her, unable to understand or see the motivations behind her actions. She remains just as much of a mystery as the other characters, which led to a feeling of being unmoored for the majority of the novel. Some may not mind this, but because I didn’t feel close to Ann, I couldn’t become as emotionally invested in the story as I would have liked. The romantic storyline involving Leo offers a lighter touch, but it doesn’t last long, as so much becomes tainted by the darkness of the Cloisters and its sinister magic.
This book has been marketed as a mix of genres, but it’s most obviously a work of suspense. The pressure begins building early on in the story, and the foreshadowing is expressed through a few different elements. The characters interactions, the weather, even the few settings offer a convincing atmospheric change when the plot begins to falter, keeping the pages turning at a nice enough clip required in this genre. History buffs will appreciate the attempts to piece together the significance of the tarot cards, but it is fate itself that plays the major role in driving the conflict of these tangled web of characters.
Sounds like a great setting, and the idea of researching Tarot cards is quite appealing! But I think I’d find the distance of the central character off-putting too, especially if she’s the narrator. I always feel if you want your central character to remain vague or ambiguous it’s better to write in the third person.
I’ve got this on my TBR list and I will probably check it out. It’s got 40 holds currently in my library system!
Oh wow – popular book!
I don’t typically read historical fiction, but both the poisonous plants in the garden and the tarot cards make it stand out from all those WWII novels that everyone loves. Did you find the main character TOO distracting, though? Like, would you read this one again?
Well its not technically historical fiction, it takes place in the present day, but it features a woman who is an archivist essentially, so she’s fascinated by history. I never consider reading a book a second time so that’s never a good tell-tale sign of a good book for me. It’s a nice work of suspense though, very eerie