If you, like me, felt yourself inexplicably drawn to tarot over the last few years, The Cloisters is going to hit a sweet spot.
This book, from first-time novelist Katy Hays, tells the story of Ann, a young woman whose post-college career path takes her to an internship at The Cloisters. There, she is caught up in the ambitious project of the museum’s curator and his assistant: discovering the true history of the tarot, something they suspect goes back earlier than is commonly believed. Ann describes this as “new, arcane, and delightfully mysterious” — a line that doubles as a description of The Cloisters.
Before even getting into the tension-filled story, what stood out to me was the fantastic descriptions of places in this book. It’s a perfect depiction of New York in the summer—not just a beautiful, “I ❤️ NY” one, but the one with oppressive humidity that makes touching anyone or anything disgusting, ruins every carefully planned outfit on your commute, and makes the stench of hot garbage inescapable. Simultaneously, it made me crave a trip to the Cloisters and its beautiful, mysterious treasures and gardens. (Side note: if you live in or are visiting the area, you should absolutely check out the museum in real life.) The Cloisters is also full of gorgeous descriptions of the art Ann encounters, very fitting for a book set at a museum. Ann is very observant, and we see the tarot cards through her eyes with a level of detail and expertise that sucks the reader in. I’m not an artist, or an art history expert, but I could clearly picture all of the designs of the different cards, along with the other, spoilery artworks she discovers.
From a plot perspective, I love how the central relationship between Ann and her coworker Rachel is depicted. As we’re introduced to Rachel, she’s definitely one of a type— a cool, effortlessly beautiful and stylish girl, with money, smarts, and connections. She’s everything Ann wishes she could be, or thinks she should wish to be. But from the beginning, there’s a deeper darkness there behind the beautiful facade. As Ann gets sucked into this world, she starts to lose her old self. She stops answering her mom’s calls, she wears Rachel’s hand- me- downs, she stops eating lunch because Rachel doesn’t—and even moves into Rachel’s huge apartment. The claustrophobia of their relationship is a huge part of the story, and I found myself getting stressed out watching Rachel’s life encircle Ana’s. If you’ve ever been in a codependent friendship, this is really going to hit home for you.
Watching Ann and her team delve deeper into their research, we get to root for their success while also dreading whatever’s obviously coming for them. There’s a sense of dread that creeps up on you with every chapter, as every discovery makes the team a little more on edge, every new friendship is accompanied by some sketchy dark side. It’s a fun ride, and every twist feels earned.
So much of this story revolves around fate and choice. How much of a choice do any of us have, when it comes down to us? If you think predicting the future is possible, does the act of predicting it cause the future to happen? Characters throughout the story hold different opinions, and the events of the book are enough to cause some opinions to change. I found myself agreeing and disagreeing with the same idea as I moved through the chapters, and even a week after finishing I’m still not sure where I fall.
If you enjoyed Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House and Peng Shepherd’s The Cartographers, I recommend The Cloisters as the perfect midpoint between the two. This is a world of fate, murder, academia, and people’s worst impulses taking them to new heights and lows, and I relished every minute of it.
The Cloisters by Katy Hays publishes November 1, 2021 and is available for preorder now at your local independent bookstore or wherever fine books are sold.