Celadon, 352 pages, $27.99
The Silent Patient, Alex Michaelides’ 2019 blockbuster bestseller, is all about a London-based psychotherapist who becomes obsessed with a painter who goes silent after she’s convicted of murdering her husband. His new suspense novel, The Maidens, also involves a London-based psychotherapist, a grisly crime, and the silencing of women.
Maybe Michaelides has gone back to this well one too many times.
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 novel, 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.
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. 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.”
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’ 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 and 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.
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. 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.”