Goodreads: The Cloisters
Age Category: Adult
Published: November 2022
When Ann Stilwell arrives in New York City, she expects to spend her summer working as a curatorial associate at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Instead, she finds herself assigned to The Cloisters, a gothic museum and garden renowned for its medieval art collection and its group of enigmatic researchers studying the history of divination.
Desperate to escape her painful past, Ann is happy to indulge the researchers’ more outlandish theories about the history of fortune telling. But what begins as academic curiosity quickly turns into obsession when Ann discovers a hidden 15th-century deck of tarot cards that might hold the key to predicting the future. When the dangerous game of power, seduction, and ambition at The Cloisters turns deadly, Ann becomes locked in a race for answers as the line between the arcane and the modern blurs.
A haunting and magical blend of genres, The Cloisters is a gripping debut that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
Set at the Cloisters with a focus on medieval and Renaissance art and a hint of the occult, I was hooked on the premise of this book from the start. I was hoping for a read that would plunge me into feeling as if I lived in New York City and made me revisit my memories of my own previous trip to the Cloisters. While the book did generally get me into a world where the characters are all passionate about research and art, I didn’t get immersed in the actual setting as much as I would have liked.
The book did keep me turning the pages, which is a huge point in its favor. Even while I was thinking to myself I didn’t feel 100% invested in the characters and the plot, I found myself picking up The Cloisters whenever I had a free moment, scanning the pages to see if the characters would find the the tarot deck that would bind all their research together — and how exactly they would betray each other in the process.
Because although the book description leans on the idea that The Cloisters is about the occult, it’s really not. There are a couple readings and a suggestion some of the characters once did a séance (completely off-page), there’s no true sense that any of this divination stuff might be real. The curator at the Cloisters professes he believes it, but, perhaps because he’s not main character, it always sounded just like something he was saying to me, not something he really believed. And while protagonist Ann repeatedly claims to have become a believer, that seems like a lie, one she tells herself to excuse every bad decision she has ever made. She could not help it. Nothing she could have done would have changed things. It was simply fate.
So the real darkness here is how awful academia can be. There is passion and euphoria, certainly, the highs that come from being paid to research your interests, to have nothing you need to do besides spend hours in an atmospheric library poring over old texts. But then reality hits home. It’s publish or perish in academia. The other characters are secure enough, but they always need more, a big discovery to keep their career going, to get a degree, funding, tenure, whatever. And Ann was not accepted into grad school right out of undergrad, so she needs something to make her next round of applications stand out. And thus the backstabbing begins. Hiding work from each other. Stealing work from each other. Throwing other people under the bus. Whatever the characters need to do to make their names in their field. This is the darkness of the book, even more chilling because it’s real.
When it comes to the book as a mystery/thriller, I found it hit-or-miss. I knew who committed the main crime, and why, immediately, but there were a couple twists near the end of the book I hadn’t seen coming, and those were a pleasant surprise.
The Cloisters is a compelling read or someone looking for a book with dark academia vibes that’s contemporary fiction rather than fantasy. It won’t be one of my favorite books of 2023, but it was fun while I was reading it.
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