Not Exactly The Secret History: The Maidens by Alex Michaelides

I didn’t have crazy, unreachable expectations for this book. I went into it knowing full well it wouldn’t be the next The Secret History. Still, I’d hoped it would be a fun mystery read with some secret society shenanigans, a dash of classic mythology and a decent twist at the end. And yet, I was still disappointed.

Who, What, Where?

Mariana Andros is a London-based group therapist still reeling from the tragic death of her husband a year prior. But when her niece Zoe calls from Cambridge after her friend, Tara, is found murdered, Mariana quickly finds herself caught up in the investigation. Of particular interest is Edward Fosca, the charismatic Greek tragedy professor and Tara’s potential lover, known for heading an exclusive, all female “study group” (aka secret society) known around campus as ‘The Maidens’. As Mariana looks closer at the crime and more bodies start to turn up, the more convinced she becomes that Fosca is the guilty party, alibis be damned. But how exactly to find the evidence to prove it?

Alright, let’s start with the good stuff first…

 A Portrait of Cambridge

The majority of The Maidens is set on the grounds of Cambridge University in the UK and Michaelides does a great job of helping his reader to really visualise it. You can tell he’s spent a lengthy amount of time researching everything from the positioning of the river, to the various pubs and eateries people haunt, to the way the buildings are laid out. It’s easy to imagine the surroundings of the characters in almost every location and this helps in maintaining the atmosphere and tension.

Loss and Grief

Something I wasn’t expecting the book to spend as much time on as it did was its depiction of grief. Having lost her husband, Sebastian, a year ago while on a trip to Greece, Mariana is still deeply feeling his loss and this shapes her thoughts and actions throughout the story. With Mariana and Sebastian having fallen in love while they themselves were at Cambridge, Mariana’s visit there is full of reminders of what she’s lost. I thought this was handled well and it helped me to sympathise with her as a character. The book also does a decent job of exploring Mariana’s family background which gives the reader a better grasp of her emotional baggage.

Insight Into a Killer

Spread throughout the book are short chapters posed as diary entries written by a mysterious man. They detail this person’s current inner turmoil and the troubling events of their childhood. While I wasn’t impressed with the revealed significance of these segments, I did enjoy the chapters themselves and found them interesting from a character building perspective.

Time to move onto the things I was less happy about.

Suspend Reality

What drove me nuts about this book was how unbelievable it felt. First, Mariana’s involvement in the investigation. Why she comes to Cambridge in the first place is fine but somehow, she just sort of jumps into looking into the murder without much prelude at all. Three different people encourage her to do so right from the get-go with no more reason than she’s a group therapist. Even though this isn’t her field, she has no forensic experience and there’s already a consultant working with the police. Um…okay.

Speaking of the police, their actions are a mess. Early on, they arrest a suspect simply because no-one can corroborate his alibi, even though Mariana tells us there’s no evidence to tie him to the death. More confusing still, they exclude a suspect by claiming a conversation he had with someone else provides an alibi BUT later arrest the same person who provided the alibi. Like, what? The second suspect can provide an alibi for the first but not the other way around?

Then we have the maidens, a group of attractive, wealthy, young women from prominent families who are being collected into a “private study group” by a charismatic professor for late night drinking and tutoring sessions. Yet, nobody bats an eyelid. No one? Really? God help the students at this university.

The cherry on top is the ending. The book gets points because the red herrings fooled me and I didn’t predict it. However, I have to deduct a gazillion points because it’s also stupid and makes little sense. Why did the killer carry out their plan under the existing circumstances? What did they hope to get out of it? Why did some of the victims willingly go with them? What’s up with the nonsensical attitudes of the maidens toward their dead friends? I have questions, okay, so many questions.

Weird Dialogue

Some of the dialogue exchanges in this book were really odd and unnatural for different reasons. For example, Mariana’s first meeting with Chief Inspector Sangha is super stilted, almost like talking with a robot programmed to act like an officer. Bizarrely, he warns her that this is his case and not to get involved when Mariana hasn’t done anything of the sort yet. On the other hand, the scenes with Mariana and Professor Fosca can only be described as melodramatic in the extreme. There’s literally a comment made by Fosca about Mariana seeing into his soul. Ick.

Do You Have a Death Wish?

While I appreciated Mariana’s grief story, I have to say that as a character, lord, does she do some stupid things. Honestly, I question whether this woman has any regard for her personal safety at all. Thinks dude is a murderer, agrees to have dinner alone with him and proceeds to get drunk. Believes person is involved in the murders, goes with them to an isolated location and gives them access to a weapon. Knows she’s likely being stalked by a patient, does nothing. Can you sense my frustration? Admittedly, she doesn’t fall for the red herrings I did, and you’d think this would be a good thing, but nopppeee. It’s actually because she refuses to consider any evidence that doesn’t fit with her own stubborn notions. *sigh*

Plot Teases

There were quite a few underdeveloped plot threads in this book that felt pointless or disappointing. First, with the way The Maidens was marketed, I expected the secret society and Greek mythology elements to play a larger role. Particularly as this is what attracted me in the first place. But, for the most part, these felt flat, lacking in substance and more importantly, irrelevant. The book tries to dive more into the mystery of the maidens towards the end, which I did find interesting, but by that point it all felt rushed and too late.

Second, there’s the issue of Mariana’s troubled, stalker patient, Henry. I want the wasted minutes of my life back. It’s frequently mentioned and built up to only to be resolved in two seconds flat and the most unsatisfying way possible. I’m still lost on what the point was.

Third, we have Mariana’s “curse”. After Mariana and Sebastian’s fateful trip to Greece, she is somehow under the impression that she’s been cursed by Persephone/Demeter and not only is this why her husband died but it’s why people keep inadvertently making references to it. It’s such a strange addition because it’s not developed well enough at a plotline, pops up at random times and seems out of place in the narrative.

Last, but not least, there’s Mariana’s not-so-romance with Fred, a premonition having, mathematics graduate student she meets on the train to Cambridge. I’m still confused as to whether I find Fred endearing or creepy and as for his relationship with Mariana, words fail me. Am I supposed to want them to be together? I don’t know. I don’t even think the author knows. The whole dynamic is just off.

As you can probably tell, I won’t be adding The Maidens to my list of favourite dark academia reads. However, if you were a big fan of The Silent Patient, you might still want to give this one a go.

2 Stars

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