The Cloisters by Katy Hays
Published by Atria Books
Publication date: November 1, 2022
Genres: Debut, Fiction, Contemporary, Suspense
The Cloisters by Katy Hays has a catnip premise for readers like me: A studious young woman graduates from college and moves to the big city to get away from her sad, small-town life. In this case the girl is Ann and the city is Manhattan where she’s got a summer internship at The Cloisters, a medieval museum. For Ann what begins as a simple job that will lead to the graduate school of her choice and never having to go home again turns into another experience entirely.
Ann joins a team preparing for an upcoming exhibition. She works with another intern, Rachel, a young woman whose life looks like everything Ann’s is not. Patrick is their boss and he’s desperate to find written verification that wealthy nobles in 16th century Italy used tarot cards, not to play card games, but to tell the future. There’s pressure on everyone for this exhibit to be successful—increased funding for Patrick and prestigious schools for Ann and Rachel.
The Cloisters, and Ann’s job, starts strong. I never went to the museum when I lived in NYC (big mistake on my part), but Hays’ descriptions of the museum and its contents made me jealous. Ann and Rachel are responsible for researching anything that might pertain to the exhibition. Days spent sifting through thousands of books and documents, hoping to find the one thing that will change everything in your field of study? Count me in!
Dream job aside, The Cloisters needs a plot so Hays leans into the inherent creepiness of ancient buildings with odd happenings and behavior that catches Ann’s attention. While she believes in the historical aspects of tarot, she’s discovering that others on the team actually believe in tarot as a divination tool. She finds remnants of candles in the library and Patrick peppers her with leading questions about her beliefs. Her jealousy towards Rachel is a constant so she bounces between wanting to be her and wanting to impress her.
The pace in The Cloisters is steady with events building to a series of largely unexpected events. It’s a good story, but beyond that the novel falls flat. My main issue is a key theme used throughout the novel—the ‘poor, outsider girl adopted by carefree, wealthy girl and how that goes wrong’ trope. It’s the kind of thing that makes me judge-y. Ann is not an outsider, she’s just new. But because the novel is told from her POV it’s constantly reinforced that she’s plain, she’s quiet, her clothes are old and ugly…it gets tiresome, especially because no one else is saying these things about her. This mindset may be meant to enhance the unreliable narrator aspect, but it detracts from the novel’s flow.
Normally 3 stars is not an enthusiastic rating on my part, but it’s likely the novel fell prey to the fact that I read so much. It makes me fussy! I know other readers who loved The Cloisters, so if the premise sounds interesting this could be a light, entertaining choice.
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