We're so excited to announce Elisabeth Thomas's debut novel Catherine House as the BuzzFeed Book Club July selection! This dark, speculative thriller is about a prestigious school that offers free tuition plus room and board to students who, in return, essentially cut themselves off from the outside world for the three years they are enrolled. Ines, our narrator, is more than happy to leave a past trauma behind her — but the further she gets in her Catherine House education, the more apparent it becomes there’s something sinister underneath it. Read the first chapter below.
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I ran a hand over my stomach. I was going be sick. The back of my throat tasted like sour wine and my ears rang with the echoes of a party: a smutty, fucked-up bass line reverberating through the floor; girls, a lot of them, slurring and yelping; a boy smashing a bottle and screaming to the crowd, “We’re here! We are the kings of the castle!”
The castle. Catherine.
I opened my eyes.
I was lying naked in an empty bathtub. My arms, hanging over either side of the porcelain, had gone numb. Everything in the bathroom was a vague off-white, from the claw-foot tub to the high-tank toilet, the swan-patterned wallpaper, the greasy tiled floor. The only thing I could focus on, by my elbow, was a bar of soap. Its surface was incised with a brutal, flawless C.
Was I dying? Was I dead?
The bathroom door clicked open and a small brown face peeked in. It boggled as it saw me.
“You can come in,” I said.
The girl hesitated. “Really?”
She stepped in and stared down at my naked body with pursed lips. Her mouth was white and moist at the corners, like an old woman’s, and she wore thick plastic-framed glasses that were much too big for her face. Her hair was brushed into four strict black puffs.
“You’re my roommate,” I said.
She nodded. “We met on the stairs, remember? You were going to a party.”
Her voice was so low, flat, and abrupt that it almost didn’t sound like English. She held her right hand cupped awkwardly against her chest.
“I don’t remember your name,” I said.
“Barbara. Barbara Pearce. Everyone calls me Baby.”
“Like.” I burped, covering my mouth with the back of my hand. “Dirty Dancing.”
“I’m Ines,” I said.
“Do you want — a towel?” she said. “
She pulled a towel off the rack and handed it to me. I draped it over my lap.
She sat down and leaned against the wall, still cupping her hand. Her pajamas were thin hospital-blue cotton, identical to the ones I had found in my own dresser, and like her glasses, they were much too big for her. They bunched around her dark, skinny ankles and wrists.
“Do you think you’re going to be much longer?” she said. “I— wanted to take a bath.”
“Did you go to the party?” I said. “The one in the Harrington cellar? ”
“Only for a minute.”
She picked at the sweater sleeve. “Was it fun?”
I put a hand to my head.
The party had packed the basement gallery, a narrow space crowded with heavy oaken tables, humid with the smell of sweat, stale mouths, and vinegary alcohol. Boys and girls pressed against each other as they shook hands and clasped shoulders. Some glanced around the room with wide, nervous eyes as they took it all in: the high coffered ceiling and faded tapestries on the walls, the unlabeled wine and brass bowls of oranges and kumquats. Others tugged at their new uniforms, white T-shirts and jeans, as they shuffled to an old Tears for Fears cassette blasting out of the boom box. A boy folded his arms, chewed his lips, and spoke too loudly as he tried to casually work his SAT scores into a conversation. A girl, her T-shirt tucked in tense and tight, seemed to be trying to shake the hand of everyone in the room. She was so excited to meet us. She was so excited to be here.
Had I been excited, too? My heart was beating fast, like I’d been running. Too fast; I couldn’t stay there and pretend to be normal.
I’d grabbed a bottle of wine and slipped into the hallway. There was a window of colored glass that looked out onto the gallery. I sat on the windowsill, drank the wine, and watched the party distort. Faces blurred in and out of each other. Laughter pitched higher as a girl shrieked. A tapestry of a naked woman riding a bull was pulled from its rod and crumpled to the floor. The image contorted psychedelically as it fell.
No, I wasn’t excited to be here, at the house. But I was relieved. Just this afternoon I’d twisted around in my bus seat to watch the Catherine gate lock behind me. I couldn’t see anything, though; the gate had already disappeared into a copse of heavy black pines. The trees scraped against the dense, leaden sky.
At the party, only hours later, I could barely remember how I’d gotten to the house. I’d taken another easy swig of wine. I didn’t care. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was that in here, no one knew who I was or what I’d done. I could stop running. I was safe.
I’d drunk until the night blurred and my heartbeat slowed. Soon I couldn’t feel my heart at all.
And now I was here.
Baby was still clutching the sweater in her lap. She stared at me without blinking.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“Why are you here, in the bathroom?”
“I told you. I want to take a bath.”
“You do not.”
She glanced down at her cupped hand, then back at me. “Promise not to tell?” she said.
“I’m not going to tell anyone anything.”
She opened her hand.
She was holding a snail with a handsome marigold-yellow shell, which he was just peeking out of now. He waved a shy tentacle.
Baby placed the snail on the floor. Shocked, he retreated back into his shell, and then hesitantly poked the tentacle out again.
“I found him on my lawn,” she said. “As my mom was packing up the car. Under the azalea bush in the driveway. I took him. I carried him the whole way here.” She poked one of his tentacles. “Do you think he’ll be okay?”
I twisted over the tub for a better look. He was sliming across the floor now, toward the sink.
“He’ll be great,” I said.
A mucus trail glimmered on the tiles.
“Promise not to tell?” Baby said. “I shouldn’t have — I don’t even know how I got him past the gate. Pets are not allowed. Of course.”
“It’s a snail.”
She blinked, apparently not understanding what I meant.
I said, “I won’t tell.”
She breathed a sigh of relief.
I climbed out of the tub. Baby’s eyes dashed away from me, and I remembered I was naked. I covered myself with the towel she’d given me as I lay down on the floor.
“Anyway,” she said, “I came here because I thought — I might run the hot bathwater for him. Maybe he would like the steam. I don’t know.”
The cool tile felt good against the side of my head. The room throbbed.
The snail had made it to the sink. Now he was climbing the pedestal, tentacles still timidly wavering. He was the sweetest creature I could imagine.
“I love him,” I said.
“I do, too.”
“Does he have a name?”
“We should name him.”
She touched his shell. “Billie Jean,” she whispered.
“Billie Jean is a girl’s name.”
She lowered her hand.
“Is he your boyfriend?” she said.
“Who? Billie Jean?”
She pursed her lips again. “No—the guy you were with. I heard you, in the hallway—going back to his room.”
“Oh,” I said. “Right. No.”
“He’s not your boyfriend?”
“I don’t know him at all.”
She pushed her glasses farther up her nose.
“I’m going to be a really bad roommate,” I said. “Sorry.”
Billie Jean was retreating into his shell.
“Are we friends?” Baby said suddenly.
“Of course,” I said. “Best friends.”
“I’ve never had a best friend before.”
I put a hand to my mouth.
“Do you need to throw up?” she said.
“I’m not sure yet,” I mumbled.
I crawled to the toilet. I heaved.
Catherine House. No, it wasn’t a college, exactly, though it was accredited as such, my second interviewer had explained as she waved steam off a mug of hot lemon water. We were sitting in her sterile white marble kitchen. As she spoke, she tapped her mug with a sapphire-ringed finger.
“You went there, right?” I said. “To Catherine?”
She inclined her head in a gentle assent.
“So you know,” I said. “If it isn’t a college, what is it?"
She kept tapping her mug. I couldn’t read her expression.
What was Catherine, exactly? Let’s say, a community of minds. A crucible of experimental, reformist liberal arts study. Research-and-development institute for the most radical new materials sciences. A postsecondary school more selective than any Ivy League, and so terrifically endowed that tuition was free to any student lucky enough to be accepted. A tiny, pioneering, fanatically private place that by some miracle of chemistry produced some of the world’s best minds: prizewinning authors, artists and inventors, diplomats, senators, Supreme Court justices, two presidents of the United States. A school, and an estate: a complex confection of architecture and design, a house — a magnificent house — miles off the highway, in black woods, behind a long iron gate.
Orientation was held on Friday in the house’s grand auditorium. I sat in the back of the balcony, my legs slung over an armrest. The chairs were upholstered in faded navy velvet, the same velvet as the stage curtains and peeling carpet. Water damage darkened the walls and rococo giltwood ceiling. Loose electric wires snaked in front of the curtains into the shadows.
Down below, about a third of the seats were filled with our class of first-years, all in white T-shirts and jeans. We’d only been here two days and already it seemed everyone else had clustered into cliques.
A woman stood in the shadow of the balcony, her arms folded and legs crossed at the ankle. She wore a slim oyster-gray dress that seemed almost to glow.
Viktória Varga. She wasn’t just Catherine’s director; she was the school’s public face. Years before I came to the house, I’d seen her on the PBS NewsHour, debating the integrity of Catherine’s plasm research or something like that. Mostly I remembered the way she sat so absolutely, impeccably still. She’d had a benevolent smile on her lips, but her eyes were cold and severe.
I mouthed her name to myself. Viktória. She had appeared almost mythic there on TV, yet here she was: a real woman, in a silvery dress, in the same auditorium as me.
I wished I were close enough to get a good look at her face.
What was Catherine, exactly? Let’s say, a community of minds. A crucible of experimental, reformist liberal arts study. Research-and-development institute for the most radical new materials sciences.
Beside me, a girl with a strict haircut sat on the edge of her seat with a notebook in her lap. Catherine House Orientation — Policies and Procedures, she had written across the top of the page. She had also written a number: 09041996. I stared at it awhile before realizing it was the date.
The lights dimmed. Everyone quieted. The curtains parted to reveal a black screen, which then flickered to life.
A woman in a pale pink skirt suit was walking down a dimly lit hall.
“Hello,” she said. “Welcome to Catherine House. My name is M. Day, and I’m the dean of student life here at Catherine. It is my immense pleasure to welcome you to your home for the next three years.”
I sneezed. The girl next to me shot me a glare.
Catherine House, M. Day was saying, hand resting on a wooden telephone booth, is not just a school, but a cloister — an environment of total concentration and retreat. We encourage students to treasure these three years as a very special private time in their lives. But we understand that some may wish to stay in touch with their families and friends back home. Such students may do so by spending what we call “points,” which are earned by excelling at program assignments, contributing meaningfully to the Catherine community, or through trades, which are assigned in your second year. Students are then welcome to spend points on phone credits and postage stamps. Your Blue Book explains the points system in further detail.
The film skipped to a spacious room lined with shelves full of toiletries. M. Day gestured toward them with a hostess’s delight.
At Catherine, it is our pleasure to provide our students with everything they need: a healthy breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner; formal and everyday dress; pencils, notebooks, and other school supplies; toiletries to nourish your hair and skin; and medications as prescribed. Other accessories and vanity items, such as fashion clothing or cosmetics, may be purchased with points at the commissary.
A flash of light and a pause, as if someone had fiddled with the camera. Then M. Day was in a dorm room, running a hand over a tidy bed.
Whether you live in Molina, Ashley, or Harrington, your hall is your home for the next three years. And while we do have a staff of aides to help keep the house in tip-top shape, we expect our students to clean up after themselves and manage their living areas with respect, just as they do their minds. Begin your day by making your bed and taking a bath. Floss and brush your teeth. Treat your bodies and your spaces with pride.
M. Day was walking across the yard, into a cluster of trees, approaching a squat white building.
If we believe you have wandered from the path of learning, we may send you here, to the Catherine House Restoration Center. The Restoration Center is not a place of punishment. It is a place to readjust your relationship to Catherine and your environment. Each of our students has been selected by Viktória and the admis- sions committee as someone who belongs here at Catherine. You will give to Catherine, and Catherine will give to you. We will not let each other down.
I glanced at Viktória when M. Day said her name. I would have thought she’d raise her hand or smile to the crowd to acknowledge the mention. She didn’t move.
M. Day continued on, wandering through various rooms at Catherine. Here was how we registered for fitness activities; this was what to do in case of a medical emergency; these were the holidays, festivals, and feasts that would mark the passage of our time. Ballrooms, parlors, and dining rooms flashed pink, white, and gold.
Should we have any questions, we may refer to the Blue Book for more details.
“It’s a lot, I know,” our usher said as we gathered in the Molina parlor after the presentation. The usher, Kimmy Tannenbaum — “Three n’s, one b, yes, write that down, there will be a quiz . . . Oh, don’t, don’t, I’m kidding, I’m kidding!” — was a frizzy, chirpy upperclassman tasked with adjusting us to life at Catherine, and to Molina in particular. She had already given us a quick, high- spirited tour of the Molina courtyard, bedroom halls, laundry pickup and drop-off, and handed out a flurry of registration forms and schedules. “Once classes begin next week,” she was saying now, rocking back and forth on her heels, “you’ll get the hang of things before you know it, lickety-split, like that.” She snapped her fingers. “I promise.”
A girl coughed. We all glanced at her, then away.
“Anyway,” Kimmy said. “Any questions?”
The parlor was tense with quiet energy. There were about thirty of us first-years in Molina, which, Kimmy had explained, was the newest hall and had the smallest number of students. We all stood crammed together among the parlor’s fussy divans, card tables, and spindly pink satin sofas, eyeing each other in tight- lipped silence. The air was heavy with the smell of dead roses.
“How do we get more wine?” the girl next to me blurted out.
The room tittered, and the girl blushed. I could smell her sweat. It smelled plasticky, like the cheap shampoo we’d found in our welcome kits. Kimmy’s smile hardened.
“Guys,” Kimmy said, “listen. I get it. Obviously, Catherine is not your average school. You’re not going to get carded here. Your parents are a billion miles away. And” —she lifted her chin — “Catherine has always been a house in which discipline and disorder are both valued as part of the learning experience. We want you to work hard, but we also want you to have the best years of your life. So go ahead, drink yourself stupid. But remember—this is not an easy school. If you don’t want to fail out, eventually you’re going to have to do your homework. And you really don’t want to fail out.”
She stared around the room, chin still lifted, as if daring us to say something more. No one did. The room watched her in anticipation.
“You can pick up bottles during tea service,” she said. “New shipments come in on the truck every week.”
Kimmy rubbed at her neck. She wasn’t looking at us anymore; she was staring up at the parlor chandelier. It hung heavy with glittering crystals and beads.
“You are so lucky,” she said. Her voice had become distant.
“So lucky,” she said, “to be here — at the beginning.” ●
From Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas, published by Custom House. Copyright © 2020 by Elisabeth Thomas. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.
Elisabeth Thomas grew up in Brooklyn, New York, where she still lives and now writes. She graduated from Yale University and currently works as an archivist for a modern art museum. This is her first novel.