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Table of Contents
About The Book
INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
A Today Show #ReadWithJenna Book Club Pick
“For fans of The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Secret History…The perfect mystery for fall.” —Jenna Bush Hager, Today
In this “sinister, jaw-dropping” (Sarah Penner, author of The Lost Apothecary) debut novel, a circle of researchers uncover a mysterious deck of tarot cards and shocking secrets in New York’s famed Met Cloisters.
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.
I would arrive in New York at the beginning of June. At a time when the heat was building—gathering in the asphalt, reflecting off the glass—until it reached a peak that wouldn’t release long into September. I was going east, unlike so many of the students from my class at Whitman College who were headed west, toward Seattle and San Francisco, sometimes Hong Kong.
The truth was, I wasn’t going east to the place I had originally hoped, which was Cambridge or New Haven, or even Williamstown. But when the emails came from department chairs saying they were very sorry… a competitive applicant pool… best of luck in your future endeavors, I was grateful that one application had yielded a positive result: the Summer Associates Program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A favor, I knew, to my emeritus advisor, Richard Lingraf, who had once been something of an Ivy League luminary before the East Coast weather—or was it a questionable happening at his alma mater?—had chased him west.
They called it an “associates” program, but it was an internship with a meager stipend. It didn’t matter to me; I would have worked two jobs and paid them to be there. It was, after all, the Met. The kind of prestigious imprimatur someone like me—a hick from an unknown school—needed.
Well, Whitman wasn’t entirely unknown. But because I had grown up in Walla Walla, the dusty, single-story town in southeastern Washington where Whitman was located, I rarely encountered anyone from out of the state who knew of its existence. My whole childhood had been the college, an experience that had slowly dulled much of its magic. Where other students arrived on campus excited to start their adult lives anew, I was afforded no such clean slate. This was because both of my parents worked for Whitman. My mother, in dining services, where she planned menus and theme nights for the first-year students who lived in the residence halls: Basque, Ethiopian, asado. If I had lived on campus, she might have planned my meals too, but the financial waiver Whitman granted employees only extended to tuition, and so, I lived at home.
My father, however, had been a linguist—although not one on faculty. An autodidact who borrowed books from Whitman’s Penrose Library, he taught me the difference between the six Latin cases and how to parse rural Italian dialects, all in between his facilities shifts at the college. That is, before he was buried next to my grandparents the summer before my senior year, behind the Lutheran church at the edge of town, the victim of a hit-and-run. He never told me where his love of languages had come from, just that he was grateful I shared it.
“Your dad would be so proud, Ann,” Paula said.
It was the end of my shift at the restaurant where I worked, and where Paula, the hostess, had hired me almost a decade earlier, at the age of fifteen. The space was deep and narrow, with a tarnished tin ceiling, and we had left the front door open, hoping the fresh air would thin out the remaining dinner smells. Every now and then a car would crawl down the wide street outside, its headlights cutting the darkness.
“Thanks, Paula.” I counted out my tips on the counter, trying my best to ignore the arcing red welts that were blooming on my forearm. The dinner rush—busier than usual due to Whitman’s graduation—had forced me to stack plates, hot from the salamander, directly onto my arm. The walk from the kitchen to the dining room was just long enough that the ceramic burned with every trip.
“You know, you can always come back,” said John, the bartender, who released the tap handle and passed me a shifter. We were only allowed one beer per shift, but the rule was rarely followed.
I pressed out my last dollar bill and folded the money into my back pocket. “I know.”
But I didn’t want to come back. My father, so inexplicably and suddenly gone, haunted every block of sidewalk that framed downtown, even the browning patch of grass in front of the restaurant. The escapes I had relied on—books and research—no longer took me far enough away.
“Even if it’s fall and we don’t need the staff,” John continued, “we’ll still hire you.”
I tried to tamp down the panic I felt at the prospect of being back in Walla Walla come fall, when I heard Paula say behind me, “We’re closed.”
I looked over my shoulder to the front door, where a gaggle of girls had gathered, some reading the menu in the vestibule, others having pushed through the screen door, causing the CLOSED sign to slap against the wood.
“But you’re still serving,” said one, pointing at my beer.
“Sorry. Closed,” said John.
“Oh, come on,” said another. Their faces were pinked with the warm flush of alcohol, but I could already see the way the night would end, with black smudges below their eyes and random bruises on their legs. Four years at Whitman, and I’d never had a night like that—just shifters and burned skin.
Paula corralled them with her outstretched arms, pushing them back through the front door; I turned my attention back to John.
“Do you know them?” he asked, casually wiping down the wood bar.
I shook my head. It was hard to make friends in college when you were the only student not living in a dorm. Whitman wasn’t like a state school where such things were common; it was a small liberal arts college, a small, expensive liberal arts college, where everyone lived on campus, or at least started their freshman year that way.
“Town is getting busy. You looking forward to graduation?” He looked at me expectantly, but I met his question with a shrug. I didn’t want to talk about Whitman or graduation. I just wanted to take my money home and safely tuck it in with the other tips I had saved. All year, I’d been working five nights a week, even picking up day shifts when my schedule allowed. If I wasn’t at the library, I was at work. I knew that the exhaustion wouldn’t help me outrun my father’s memory, or the rejections, but it did blunt the sharp reality of it.
My mother never said anything about my schedule, or how I only came home to sleep, but then, she was too preoccupied with her own grief and disappointments to confront mine.
“Tuesday is my last day,” I said, pushing myself away from the bar and tipping back what little was left in my glass before leaning over the counter and placing it in the dish rack. “Only two more shifts to go.”
Paula came up behind me and wrapped her arms around my waist, and as eager as I was for it to be Tuesday, I let myself soften into her, leaning my head against hers.
“You know he’s out there, right? He can see this happening for you.”
I didn’t believe her; I didn’t believe anyone who told me there was a magic to it all, a logic, but I forced myself to nod anyway. I had already learned that no one wanted to hear what loss was really like.
Two days later I wore a blue polyester robe and accepted my diploma. My mother was there to take a photograph and attend the Art History department party, held on a wet patch of lawn in front of the semi-Gothic Memorial Building, the oldest on Whitman’s campus. I was always acutely aware of how young the building, completed in 1899, was in comparison to those at Harvard or Yale. The Claquato Church, a modest Methodist clapboard structure built in 1857, was the oldest building I had ever seen in person. Maybe that was why I found it so easy to be seduced by the past—it had eluded me in my youth. Eastern Washington was mostly wheatfields and feed stores, silver silos that never showed their age.
In fact, during my four years at Whitman, I had been the department’s only Early Renaissance student. Tucked safely away from the exploits of major artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo, I preferred to study bit characters and forgotten painters who had names like Bembo or Cossa, nicknames like “messy Tom,” or “the squinter.” I studied duchies and courts, never empires. Courts were, after all, delightfully petty and fascinated by the most outlandish things—astrology, amulets, codes—things I, myself, found it impossible to believe in. But these fascinations also meant I was often alone: in the library, or in an independent study with Professor Lingraf, who lumbered into our meetings at least twenty minutes late, if he remembered them at all.
Despite the impracticality of it all, the overlooked edges of the Renaissance had grabbed me with their gilt and pageantry, their belief in magic, their performances of power. That my own world lacked those things made it an easy choice. I had been warned, however, when I began to think about graduate school, that very few departments would be interested in my work. It was too fringe, too small, not ambitious enough or broad enough. Whitman encouraged its students to reexamine the discipline, become ecocritical, explore the multisensory qualities of human vision. There were times I wondered if the things I studied, the overlooked objects no one wanted, had in fact chosen me, because I often felt powerless to abandon them.
In the shade, my mother moved her arms in circles, her silver bracelets jangling as she spoke to another parent. I looked around the party for Lingraf’s shock of white hair, but it was clear he had declined to attend. Although we had worked together for the better part of four years, he rarely made appearances at departmental functions or spoke about his own research. No one knew what he was working on these days, or when he would finally stop showing up on campus. In some ways, working with Lingraf had been a liability. When other students and even faculty heard he was advising me, they often asked if I was sure that was right; he so rarely took on students. But it was. Lingraf had signed off on my thesis, my major completion forms, my letters of recommendation—all of it. This, despite the fact he refused to be part of the Whitman community, preferring instead to work in his office, door closed to distractions, always shuffling his papers into a drawer when anyone arrived.
As I finished scanning the party, Micah Yallsen, a fellow graduating senior, came up alongside me.
“Ann,” he said, “I heard you were going to be in New York this summer.”
Micah had grown up splitting his time between Kuala Lumpur, Honolulu, and Seattle. The kind of grueling travel schedule that necessitated a private plane, or at the bare minimum first-class accommodations.
“Where are you living?”
“I found a sublet in Morningside Heights.”
He speared a wan cube of cheddar off the paper plate in his hand. Whitman never wasted money on catering, and I was sure my mother’s department had prepared the grazing trays in-house.
“It’s only for three months,” I added.
“And after?” he chewed.
“I don’t know yet,” I said.
“I wish I were taking a gap year,” he said, spinning the toothpick in his mouth contemplatively.
Micah had been accepted into MIT’s History, Theory and Criticism PhD program, one of the most prestigious in the country. But I imagined his gap year would have looked very different from my own.
“I would have been happy to go straight through,” I pointed out.
“It’s just so hard to find a place to study Early Ren these days,” he said. “Our discipline has shifted. It’s for the better, of course.”
I nodded. It was easier than protesting. After all, it was a familiar refrain.
“But even so. We need people to continue the work of past generations. And it’s good to be interested in something—be passionate about something.” He speared another cube of cheese. “But you should also think about trends.”
I was the sort of person for whom trends had always been intractable. By the time I caught them, they were already wiggling their way out of my grasp. What had appealed to me about academia was that it seemed like a place where I could be blissfully free of trends, where one settled into a subject and never left. Lingraf had only ever published books on the artists of Ravenna; he’d never even had to go as far afield as Venice.
“These things matter now,” Micah was saying. “Especially since there’s not much new to be done in the fifteenth century, is there? That’s pretty well covered ground at this point. No new discoveries. Unless someone tries to reattribute a Masaccio or something.” He laughed and took that as his cue to slip into another, more beneficial conversation. His advice doled; his obligation filled. Here, Ann, let me tell you why those rejections came. As if I didn’t already know.
“Do you need help?” My mother leaned against the doorjamb of my bedroom, where I was pulling handfuls of books from my bookcase and stacking them on the floor.
“I’m fine,” I said. But she came into my room anyway, peering into the boxes I had packed and pulling open the drawers of my aging dresser.
“Not much left,” she said, so softly that I almost didn’t hear her. “Are you sure you don’t want to leave a few things here?”
If I had ever felt guilty about leaving her alone in Walla Walla, my own self-preservation had pushed those feelings aside. Even when my father was alive, I had considered my stay in this bedroom temporary. I wanted to see the places he brought home in books from the Penrose Library—the campaniles of Italy, the windswept coastline of Morocco, the twinkling skyscrapers of Manhattan. Places I could only afford to travel to on the page.
The day he died, my father spoke ten languages and could read at least five defunct dialects. Language was his way of venturing beyond the four walls of our home, beyond his own childhood. I regretted that he wasn’t here to see me do the thing he had always wanted most. But my mother was afraid of travel—of planes, of places she didn’t know, of herself—and so, my father usually chose to stay with her, close to home. I couldn’t help but wonder if he had known, if he had known that he would die young, whether he wouldn’t have tried harder to see a few more things.
“I wanted to be sure you could rent the room if you needed to.” I finished filling a box with books, and the sound of the tape gun startled us both.
“I don’t want anyone else living here.”
“Someday you might,” I said gently.
“No. Why would you bring that up? Where would you stay then, if I rented your room? How could I see you if you didn’t come here, come back?”
“You could always come visit,” I ventured.
“I can’t. You know I can’t.”
I wanted to argue with her, to look at her and tell her that she could. She could get on a plane, and I would be there, waiting for her at the end, but I knew it wasn’t worth it. She would never come visit me in New York, and I couldn’t stay. If I did, I knew how easy it would be to get caught in the cobwebs, just as she had done.
“I’m still not sure why you want to go in the first place. A big city like that. You’ll be much better looked after here. Where people know you. Know us.”
It was a conversation I knew well, but I didn’t want to spend my last night in the house this way—the way we had spent so many nights after my father died.
“It’s going to be fine, Mom,” I said, not saying aloud the thing I said to myself. It has to be.
She picked up a book that lay on the corner of the bed and thumbed through its pages. My bedroom had just enough space for one bookcase and a dresser, the bed wedged against the wall. “I never realized you had so many of these,” she said.
The books took up more space than my clothes. They always had.
“Hazard of the trade,” I said, relieved she had changed the subject.
“Okay,” she said, putting the book down. “I guess you have to finish.”
And I did, squeezing my books into the boxes that would be mailed and zipping my duffel closed. I reached under my bed, feeling around for the cardboard box where I kept my tips. I felt the weight of the money in my lap.
Tomorrow, I would be in New York.
Reading Group Guide
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The Secret History meets Ninth House in this sinister, atmospheric novel following a circle of researchers as they uncover a mysterious deck of tarot cards and shocking secrets in New York’s famed Met Cloisters.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The events of The Cloisters take place over one summer. How does the season and summer weather reflect Ann’s emotions and evolution throughout the novel?
2. Patrick and Rachel are first introduced in Chapter 2. What were your first impressions of each of them? Discuss the events that resulted in Ann working at The Cloisters?
3. Patrick is Rachel’s mentor, but he is also her lover. How does this dynamic complicate the situation at The Cloisters? Who do you think had more power in their relationship, and what form did that power take?
4. Early on, Rachel steals a cookie from the café, and later we see her play pranks on Moira, in addition to taking the tiles to identify plants in the garden and stealing a boat. What do these incidents tell us about Rachel? How do all of these “games” foreshadow the dark and dangerous choices she has made over the years?
5. What do you think Ann’s motivations were to not share all of Lingraf’s writings with Rachel and to hide the false-fronted card from Patrick? How might the story have been different if she had shared this information with the team?
6. Loss is central to both Ann’s and Rachel’s stories. Discuss some of their major (and minor) losses throughout the book and how these may have shaped them as characters.
7. Laure warns Ann about Rachel’s past—why do you think Ann becomes so defensive of Rachel? At this point, do you think their friendship is a healthy one?
8. Discuss how Lingraf becomes central to the mystery and uncovering the truth.
9. Ann and Rachel come from very different backgrounds, but at the end of the novel, Rachel insists that they are the same. What personality traits do each of them share? How are they different? Ultimately, do you think Rachel is right?
10. In Chapter 4, Ann expresses how “Walla Walla would always feel like death to me” (p. 33). Do you think the same can be said for The Cloisters after her summer there?
11. In the end, was it fate that decided what happened to these characters or the choices they made?
12. During the prologue, Ann talks about how she missed “the omens that haunted The Cloisters that summer.” Having finished the novel, what were the omens? How did the prologue foreshadow the importance (or not) of Fate?
13. Both tarot and astrology play a significant role in today’s discourse. These days, it seems as if everyone knows their rising sign or has tarot deck. How do those contemporary practices relate to the historic practices outlined in The Cloisters? Are they different? Similar? Do you use either device, and if so, why?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. As Ann dives into her research at The Cloisters, she learns about different types of divination and fortune telling, including augury, pyromancy, cleromancy, lots, and tarot. Research the history of these practices. Why do you think there is a growing interest in them today?
2. Leo introduces Ann to many of the plants grown in the gardens, including some that are poisonous. List the plants mentioned, and see if you can identify any at a local botanical garden.
3. The Met Cloisters is a real museum in New York City. Learn more about the museum at www.metmuseum.org/visit/plan-your-visit/met-cloisters or plan an in-person visit!
A Conversation with Katy Hays
Q: There’s a lot of history woven into the book, particularly regarding art and tarot cards. What was your research process like?
A: As is true for many academics, a research rabbit hole is my happy place! But surprisingly, I found very little existing scholarship on Renaissance tarot. When that happens, as a researcher, you start to look at topics that might intersect or surround the lacuna so you can set the scene. In the case of tarot, that meant turning to questions of chance (particularly as they related to card play), as well as fate, fortune, and free will. Renaissance Europe, and Italy in particular, was absolutely obsessed with these issues, and that literature offered me more than enough material to work with!
Q: Is there anything you learned that you wish could have made it into the book?
A: I read a wonderful book by Mary Quinlan-McGrath, Influences: Art, Optics, and Astrology in the Italian Renaissance. In it, Quinlan-McGrath argues that anyone with a bit of power during the Renaissance (Popes, aristocrats, philosophers, etc.) believed that painted representations of celestial bodies could impact someone’s horoscope. I remember reading her book and thinking: this is absolutely the weirdest thing I have ever read! For example, if my Mercury is in Scorpio and I’m standing under a constellation of Taurus, just standing under the painting will make my communication sluggish? What? I wish more of that could have made it in!
Q: Atmospheric is the perfect word to describe The Cloisters. How did you get in the mindset to write something so sensory?
A: I was working on the book during Covid, so while I had visited The Cloisters many years before, it wasn’t possible to go travel there while I was writing the book. To fill the gaps, I relied heavily on Google Street View, which allowed me to “walk” through Fort Tryon Park, see the exterior of the museum, and “walk” other streets in New York. Additionally, through my teaching work, I knew the Met had incredible digital resources to support their collections. That access was critical to completing the book. But also, I have to say—a playlist of Gregorian chants helped, too!
Q: One quote that stuck with me in The Cloisters was: “Your interpretation of choice is a luxury, a curtain that separates us from fate” (p. 283). Ann and the other characters ruminate on themes of fate throughout the book. Did writing this book clarify your own thoughts on fate versus free will? If so, what are they?
A: I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of luck. Luck is a spark, a scrap of magic, something we can’t control, but that seems essential. In that sense, I’ve always considered luck and fate to be twins or, at a bare minimum, kissing cousins. I believe, like many, that choice and free will remain our primary source of power and give life shape and meaning. But there’s no denying that something outside of our control—fate, luck, chance, fortuna—also plays a vital and sometimes outsized role in our lives.
Q: Ann is perpetually conscious of her outsider status in the world of academia, and you pull the veil back on the uglier sides of academia, such as how much nepotism, gatekeeping, and privilege permeates it. What do you hope readers learn about the interworkings of these institutions?
A: I don’t think academia has cornered the market on nepotism, gatekeeping, or being privileged! And I do have to say that I think museums like The Met are working hard to turn the page when it comes to these outmoded ways of working and hiring. But what I think remains true about academia and the art world is the extent to which a pedigree matters. It doesn’t have to be familial, but it does need to be institutional—the right schools, internships, recommenders. Those elements decide the outcome of someone’s career and that quality—being anointed, almost—happens early.
Q: Do you have a favorite tarot card? And if so, what makes it your favorite?
A: This will come as no surprise—the Wheel of Fortune is my favorite card. It’s a deeply lucky card. That said, I primarily use a classic Rider-Waite deck, and I’m always happy to see just about any card . . . so long as it’s not a sword. That suit makes me nervous!
Q: Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on now?
A: Sure! I’m currently working on a novel that reimagines the House of Thebes and, particularly, the legacy of Harmonia’s necklace, a cursed object in antiquity that brough misfortune to any woman who wore it. It’s a family drama, set over the course of a wedding weekend in Italy, that deals with desire, social taboos, money, and creative ambition. I’m thinking of it as a cursed Succession meets The Guest List.
Why We Love It
“When The Cloisters first crossed my desk, I read it in one sitting, staying up late into the night until I reached the final hair-raising, blink-and-you-miss-it reveal on the last page. I devoured the fascinating details about astrology, botany, and tarot, but it was the dark relationships, mercurial characters, and arcane atmosphere that won me over so completely. Filled with mystery, complex themes about fate versus choice, and razor-sharp insights into power dynamics and class divides, The Cloisters is a tour de force that heralds the coming of an explosive new talent in the literary thriller landscape.”
—Natalie H., Senior Editor, on The Cloisters
- Publisher: Atria Books (November 1, 2022)
- Length: 320 pages
- ISBN13: 9781668004401
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Raves and Reviews
“A story of academic obsession, Renaissance magic and the ruthless pursuit of power. Captivating in every sense of the word.” —Sarah Pearse, New York Times bestselling author of The Sanatorium
“The tension and foreboding builds gradually in this outstanding gothic debut, allowing readers to savor Ann’s voice. The disturbing account plays with class differences and women friendship, set against a medieval, academic atmosphere sheltered from the city.” —Library Journal, starred review
“Sultry and sinister . . . Hays's debut teems with sexual tension, the secrets of divination, and scholarly obsessiveness. With a jaw-dropping twist at the end, The Cloisters serves as a warning to us all: we may think we know what life has in store, but fate and fortune tend to turn their own tricks." —Sarah Penner, New York Times bestselling author of The Lost Apothecary
“A moody and suspenseful story . . . Readers will be fascinated by the evocative setting as well as the behind-the-scenes glimpses into museum curatorship and the cutthroat games of academia . . . An accomplished debut.” —Publishers Weekly
“A tour de force by an important new voice, The Cloisters begins as a fish-out-of-water story. But as Katy Hays deftly weaves in layer after layer of the occult, art, and academia, it turns into a rich tapestry that speaks to issues of privilege, power, and ambition—and, more than anything, the darkness lurking just inside ivory towers. Virtuosic and incredibly compelling, The Cloisters grabbed me in a way that no book has done since The Secret History.” —Rachel Kapelke-Dale, author of The Ballerinas
“A tantalizingly clever tale, laced with surprises as devious as its cast of shadowy scholars, The Cloisters had me gripped from cover to cover. Hays’s debut is diabolical and darkly entertaining, a masterwork of literary suspense that surges to an otherworldly conclusion.” —Mark Prins, author of The Latinist
“Like the moment before a thunderstorm on a summer afternoon, The Cloisters is sultry, lush, and trembling with menace.” —Julia May Jonas, author of Vladimir
“Mesmerizing . . . A seductive unfurling of lies, envy, and the pull of the occult, The Cloisters does for tarot what The Secret History did for Greek class. This sharp, shadowy book held me in thrall from beginning to star-crossed end.” —Sara Sligar, author of Take Me Apart
“Prepare to lose your entire afternoon to The Cloisters, first for its atmosphere, a medieval museum at the tip of Manhattan, and then to pursuing a young scholar in her search for an ancient tarot deck, while keeping a sharp eye on the brilliant, attractive colleagues who may be out to help her or kill her. Good luck staying ahead of this one and have a great time poring over the many treasures inside.” —Maria Hummel, author of Reese’s Book Club Pick Still Lives
“A sharply smart, engaging debut exploring art, desire, ambition, and privilege set in the mysterious, opulent, famed Cloisters museum in Upper Manhattan, with dark surprises through its final pages. Hays’ smooth narration deftly conjures the complex, sexy webs between her characters . . . A fun, seductive, intelligent read.” —Nicola DeRobertis-Theye, author of The Vietri Project
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