Billed as ‘The secret history for a new generation‘, Katy Hays’ The Cloisters is a sinister slow-burning tale of obsession, power, secrets, and academic rivalry. Focusing on a small circle of enigmatic art researchers, it shares many similarities with Donna Tartt’s 1992 novel. Both are set against a dark elite academic backdrop and feature a mysterious death, an impressionable, eager-to-fit-in protagonist, and a close-knit series of characters whose ambitions outweigh their morality. And, like Tartt’s novel, The Cloisters it certainly leaves a lasting impression.
The story is told from the point of view of Ann Stilwell, an awkward, goofy intern who arrives in New York City hoping to escape the traumas of her past by spending the summer working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Instead, Ann finds herself assigned to The Cloisters, a Gothic museum and garden renowned for its collection of medieval and Renaissance art. It is here that Ann becomes drawn into the secret lives of her colleagues: Patrick, the charismatic but headstrong museum curator, Leo, the impulsive and maverick gardener, and Rachel, a wealthy, beautiful and well-connected intern who is all Ann aspires to be. . to be.
Desperate to be part of the quest Patrick and Rachel are undertaking, Ann makes herself valuable to The Cloisters, indulging Rachel’s whims and pandering to Patrick’s outlandish theories. But when she discovers a mysterious 15th-century Italian tarot deck thought lost to history, she Ann finds herself at the center of a dangerous game that will leave someone dead and the rest of them suspected of murder. As the once sequestered world of The Cloisters spirals dangerously out of control, Ann must decide if the future is predetermined or if she is free to play the cards she has been dealt.
I should have seen it coming. The way the body would be spread out on the library floor, the way the gardens would be torn apart by the search. The way our jealousy and greed and ambition were waiting to eat us all, like a snake eating its own tail.
While the world of tarot and destiny is large and elaborate, The Cloisters in itself it is a confined, almost claustrophobic novel. Venturing occasionally outside the confines of the museum to provide insight into Rachel’s dark past and calculating mentality, it is within the museum walls, during a hot, muggy summer, that the scene of desire, fixation, murder and treason. There are very few peripheral characters and it is the power play between Rachel, Patrick, Leo and Ann that makes up the bulk of the novel. Ann is so eager to fit in that she’s willing to overlook warning signs. As a young woman who has felt invisible and irrelevant for most of her life, Ann longs to be a part of something; to assert his instincts and her intelligence. The Cloisters give it to him, but at a terrible price.
The Cloisters it leans into all the things readers love about the dark academy literary subgenre. Learned minds, toxic personal relationships, unhealthy professional rivalries and an atmospheric setting that influences the decisions of the characters. The first half of the novel is a slow and carefully crafted construction. Too slow, sometimes. You’d be forgiven for starting to wonder if the story will ever go anywhere. But then the murder occurs and the tension thickens along with the plot. Ann begins to change, becoming bolder and more assertive. In other words, she’s more like Rachel. But while Ann spends much of the novel trying to emulate Rachel’s style, self-confidence, and seemingly casual indifference, it’s what separates the two women that matters most to her in the end.
You have to stick with The Cloisters to really appreciate the complexity of the story Katy Hays has written, but it’s an intriguing exploration of single-minded ambition and destructive friendships, particularly between young, feuding women. The unveiling of Rachel’s secrets leads Ann to a nerve-wracking revelation, but there’s one final shocker that’s so cleverly inserted into the antepenultimate chapter that you’ll have to read it twice just to understand the magnitude of what you’ve just read. It’s a gut punch of a revelation that will appeal to readers who appreciate a perfectly timed and unexpected twist. It’s been weeks since I finished the book and I’m still impressed with how much it affected me.
The Cloisters was released by Bantam Press on January 19, 2023