Book Review: The Cloisters by Katy Hays

Ann Stilwell arrives in New York City, hoping to spend her summer working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Instead, she is assigned to The Cloisters, a gothic museum and garden renowned for its medieval and Renaissance collections.

There she is drawn into a small circle of charismatic but enigmatic researchers, each with their own secrets and desires, including the museum’s curator, Patrick Roland, who is convinced that the history of Tarot holds the key to unlocking contemporary fortune telling.

Relieved to have left her troubled past behind and eager for the approval of her new colleagues, Ann is only too happy to indulge some of Patrick’s more outlandish theories. But when Ann discovers a mysterious, once-thought lost deck of 15th-century Italian tarot cards she suddenly finds herself at the centre of a dangerous game of power, toxic friendship and ambition.

And as the game being played within the Cloisters spirals out of control, Ann must decide whether she is truly able to defy the cards and shape her own future . . .


A book the teems with potential – an academic setting within a gothic museum, an unreliable narrator, intense relationships within the scholars, murder, tarot cards – and yet it somehow fell a little flat and slow.

What I Liked

  • The setting in the Cloisters museum – which is a real physical space, isn’t it?
  • The world of academia, when it was featured, was great

What Could Have Been Different

  • More of the world of academia: more symposiums, debates, lectures; more discoveries.
  • A greater pace to the novel and a greater sense of drama.
  • More gothic

There is so much in the premise for this novel that appeals: the world of academia – whether it be teaching, libraries or museums – are a golden seam for dark academia novels from Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian to Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House. The combination of arcane and esoteric knowledge, intense relationships at a distance from reality, soaring buildings etched with history… it is such a heady combination and as an erstwhile scholar I love all of that.

And throw into that tarot cards – and I have always loved the tarot – and a murder, too… This novel was ticking all the right boxes for me!

We meet our narrator Ann Stilwell as she escapes from a small town college, a recently dead father and a mother drowning in grief by securing a Summer internship at the Museum of Modern Arts in New York. As that internship is unceremoniously brought to an abrupt end before it even begins, the charismatic Patrick Roland sweeps her up to support his work at the Cloisters, a museum in which he is preparing a display on divination and is searching for an elusive tarot set from the Middle Ages. Through The Cloisters, Ann is introduced to both Rachel Mondray – an orphaned heiress with a tragic and troubled past who has been working with Patrick on his research – and Leo – an enigmatic gardener at The Cloisters who dreams of being a playwright, plays in a band, and spends his days tinkering with herbs, both medicinal and poisonous, in the exquisite gardens of The Cloisters.

And The Cloisters is a real and absolutely gorgeous looking museum!

As the summer wears on, Ann finds herself drawn to all the others in her circle. She becomes friends with Rachel and spending increasing levels of time with her both at work, at her family’s “camp” and moving in with her. She becomes close to Leo. She is invited by Patrick to his home, and more importantly, to the tarot readings he becomes increasingly fascinated with as he seeks definitive proof that the tarot were used for divination as well as entertainment in Medieval Europe.

A discovery by Ann is revelatory. A decision is made to keep the discovery secret, then to share it with Rachel, cementing their relationship. As tensions rise, a body is discovered.

The novel felt incredibly slow somehow despite it being a fairly short page count… Ann was not a terribly engaging narrative voice and seemed to lack focus or energy or much real agency. Yes, there is a certain unreliability in her narration and a revelation is withheld from the reader until the final sections but I wasn’t entirely sure how that affected my reading. The death came too late for me; the discovery by Ann was a little too arbitrary; the cast of characters too limited; the conclusion a little too… quiet. I mean, I’m not great fan of the melodramatic but I did feel that I wanted something… more.

And as Ann is asked explicitly to consider whether she might genuinely believe in the ability of the tarot to tell the future, I wanted that to be an invitation to something dark, sinister and gothic to haunt the pages of the novel. In reality, it became a philosophical comment which again contributed nothing truly to the novel or to the characterisation of the protagonist.

Whilst I cannot fault hays’ language or her research, the novel for me fell short… an intellectual rather than an emotional or visceral read. I’m not sure I really cared about any of her characters.

Katy Hays is a Californian, writer, and cake aficionado. She lives in the shadow of the Sierra with her husband and their dog, Queso. In addition to writing, Katy works as an adjunct Art History Professor teaching rural students from Truckee to Tecopa. She holds an MA in Art History from Williams College and pursued her PhD in Art History at UC Berkeley. Her academic writing has been published by Ashgate, an imprint of Routledge.

Overall

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Characters:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Plot / Pace:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Worldbuilding:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Structure:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Language:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Page Count:

320 pages

Publisher:

Bantam Press

Date:

19th January 2023

Links:

Amazon, Goodreads

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Cloisters by Katy Hays”

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