“The Maidens” of the novel’s title are a secret society of female students at Cambridge University who slavishly cluster around a brilliant, ponytailed hunk of a classics professor named Edward Fosca. As is the custom at British universities, the professor conducts private tutorials with each of these young women (whom he’s dubbed “The Maidens”) and is also rumored to throw “infamous parties . . . . only for his students.”
One-third of the way through “The Maidens,” these young women start being murdered one-by-one, in gruesome, ritualistic fashion. University administrators are slow to act, waiting until victim number three is discovered to ruminate over closing down campus. When Professor Fosca is questioned about the high homicide rate among his clique, he shrugs, “There’s nothing sinister going on. I’m a tame fellow with a generous alcohol allowance, that’s all — if anyone is being abused here, it’s me.”
The police find Fosca’s attitude perfectly rational. Our heroine, a widowed young psychotherapist named Mariana Andros, who is also the aunt of one of “The Maidens,” is the one adult in the novel who is convinced that Fosca is guilty of foul deeds. Certainly, it does seem like a significant clue that, before their murders, all the victims received a postcard with ominous quotations written in ancient Greek from the very texts that Fosca teaches.
Let’s stop there.
As anyone who’s stepped on a college campus lately knows, a male professor rumored to be inviting his most beautiful female students to be initiated into an alcohol-fumed “secret society” would be, rightly, hauled before the Sexual Misconduct Review Board quicker than you could say “Leda and the Swan.” (Doing my own due diligence, I Googled the Cambridge University website and confirmed that institution proclaims “a zero tolerance” policy on “inappropriate student and staff behaviour.”) Michaelides holds an MA from Cambridge. One can only surmise, then, that this Cartoon Cambridge is a deliberate fabrication, constructed out of Gothic conventions (an illicit sexual assignation among the tombstones of the campus graveyard!) and the vestiges of quaint Oxbridge tradition (bowler-hatted porters and food from “the buttery” sure to appeal to lovers of Dorothy Sayers’s “Gaudy Night.”
“The Silent Patient,” was, according to his ecstatic publisher’s promotional copy, “the biggest selling debut in the world in 2019,” so perhaps I’m missing something distinctive about “The Maidens.” That something would not be the novel’s descriptive passages nor its dialogue. Judge for yourself. Here’s Mariana sparring with Professor Fosca during dinner in his private quarters:
“He kept staring. His gaze was heavy, intense, lingering. She felt like a rabbit in headlights . . . .
‘You’re a beautiful woman,’ she heard him say, ‘but you have more than beauty. You have a certain quality — a stillness. Like the stillness in the depths of the ocean, far beneath the waves, where nothing moves. Very still . . . and very sad.’
Mariana didn’t say anything. She didn’t like where this was going — . . .”
That makes two of us, Mariana. As a Gothic seducer, the professor relies on lines more full of baloney than the Cold Cut Combo at Subway.
I will admit I was drawn in by the first few chapters of “The Maidens” that focus on Mariana’s grief (she lost her husband 14 months earlier) and her work as a group therapist. I even looked forward to Mariana’s getaway to Cambridge, propelled by a frantic phone call from her niece, Zoe, after the first murder. But Michaelides’s plot begins to go off the rails when a graduate student in mathematics falls instantly in love with Mariana and proposes soon thereafter. Credibility is further strained by Chief Inspector Sangha, who’s in charge of the investigation, a man with “a lean and hungry look” who treats Mariana with instant (and unexplained) disdain. The novel’s credibility fully disintegrates at a memorial service held in the college chapel for the first victim. There, Professor Fosca and “The Maidens” process in and no one in attendance — university administrators, parents or students — places a red-alert call to authorities from the Sexual Misconduct Review Board:
“Mariana saw Professor Fosca appear in the chapel. He walked down the aisle, following a group of six distinctive young women — distinctive because they were all extremely beautiful and because they were all dressed in white; in long white dresses.”
Throughout “The Maidens,” Michaelides quotes from the melancholy poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, one of Cambridge’s most celebrated poets. But a line from another Cambridge poet seems to me more apt as a final pronouncement on “The Maidens.” I’m thinking of A.E. Housman, who was a professor of Latin there in the early 20th century. Housman wrote the long poetry sequence “A Shropshire Lad,” which contains the oft-useful line, “Terence, this is stupid stuff.”
Maureen Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.
By Alex Michaelides
Celadon. 352 pp. $27.99