The Cloisters by Katy Hays

The Cloisters is a novel about a woman who moves to New York City to work in a museum, only to find herself drawn into strange Tarot research, questions about fate, and a toxic web of relationships. Ann moves from her hometown in Washington to New York, ready to start a summer role at the Met. When a mistake leads her to end up working at The Cloisters instead, a small museum and garden focusing on medieval and Renaissance art, Ann meets Patrick and Rachel, both working at The Cloisters and intrigued by the history of Tarot. As Ann finds herself drawn into the work and into Rachel’s world, things start to spiral out of control.

This book is being marketed as very much a modern version of The Secret History, and the focus on Tarot seems perfect for that, fitting into the contemporary internet interests in astrology and Tarot that probably are liked by people who also like the dark academia genre. The premise, with a less well-off protagonist moving across the country to find academic success, sounds very much like The Secret History, but like many similar books, it lacks the actual atmosphere and ever-increasing stakes of Tartt’s novel, focusing more on Ann’s torn allegiance between Rachel and Leo, Ann’s love interest and gardener at The Cloisters. 

The novel starts promisingly, but a lot of the narrative doesn’t quite go down the dark routes it seems it might and doesn’t really linger with the questions of power and fate as much as a mystery story and some flawed characters. The revelations in the plot are neither surprising nor particularly bring tension (Ann as the narrator doesn’t really draw out any kind of sinister atmosphere and the big moments in the narrative don’t really get enough drama), but it is a decent story, particularly if you focus more on Ann’s journey from an uncertain person leaving her past behind to someone with more of a sense of purpose. The wider main characters don’t actually interact as much as you might expect, and any interesting elements between Ann and Rachel in terms of their dynamic aren’t really explored, either in terms of a Talented Mr Ripley-esque wanting to be her or any kind of sexual tension.

Though on paper The Cloisters sounds like a perfect novel for the moment, with Tarot and dark academia and a young woman trying to prove her research-worth, for me The Cloisters didn’t quite delve far enough into its characters and concepts. Plenty of fans of books like The Secret History will probably like it (and maybe if you’re more interested in Tarot than me, that side of thing will particularly appeal, as there’s a lot of interesting history and lore), but as with many books trying to be this kind of novel, this one doesn’t quite feel dark enough or build up enough atmosphere.