I read and enjoyed Alex Michaelides debut, The Silent Patient. It was nicely creepy, chock full of compelling characters, and ended with an excellent twist I didn’t predict. Reader, I love unpredictable surprise twists (and diabolical villains)! A lot. Unfortunately, The Maidens is nowhere near as good as The Silent Patient (it’s not even close), and I almost DNF’d it several times. Boring and borderline pretentious, overstuffed with red herrings and unlikeable characters (caricatures is a better word), The Maidens is a slog from start to finish. It tries to be clever and completely misses the mark. I can’t recommend it.
Mariana Andros is a group therapist struggling with her feelings of loss and grief since the sudden death of her beloved husband Sebastian. Although it’s been a year since he drowned during a vacation on the Greek island of Naxos (Mariana’s childhood home), she can’t stop blaming herself for his death (she pressed him to go on vacation despite his reluctance) or wondering if she’s somehow cursed to lose everyone she loves. Her mother died when she was just a young girl, and she lost her emotionally distant father shortly after her marriage to Sebastian. She’s grateful she has her niece Zoe, a student at Cambridge University, who’s been like a daughter ever since the death of Zoe’s parents when she was fifteen years old.
Mariana keeps herself busy with her thriving therapy practice and finds her work an excellent distraction from dwelling on Sebastian. Today she’s hosting a group session but she’s frustrated by the late arrival – again – of her patient Henry and trying not to lose patience with him. Henry suffered horrific abuse as a child, and despite his keen intellect, has struggled as an adult. He needs the group. Mariana didn’t give up easily; as long as she was able to maintain control of the group, she felt determined to work with him. She believed in the group, in these eight individuals sitting in a circle—she believed in the circle, and its power to heal. But she also knows that for the group to be successful, the members need to respect group rules and boundaries. Henry doesn’t and it’s a problem. When she finally dismisses the group, she’s unsurprised when Henry lingers.
Mariana is aware Henry has been following her and watching the house, but she hasn’t reported him. She firmly refuses his repeated requests for one-on-one therapy, and ignoring the frisson of fear she feels at his close proximity, she asks him to leave. He resorts to begging and then lifts his shirt to reveal his bloody stomach. He’s carved crosses into his skin; some of the carvings are still bleeding. Mariana is horrified – and scared – but forces herself to hide it from him. Instead, she hands him a medical kit, tells him to go see his GP, and shuts the door in his face. As one does.
Later that evening, she receives a phone call from a tearful Zoe, who then reveals a close friend was murdered. Leaving the house the following morning to travel to Cambridge, Mariana thinks she spots Henry hiding behind a tree, but she banishes him from her mind and continues on to the station; Zoe needs her and Henry will have to wait. This is her first trip back to Cambridge since Sebastian’s death (they met as students), and she spends the train ride reminiscing over the early days of their relationship. But her thoughts are interrupted when she spots a stranger staring at her from across the aisle. He shrugs off her attempts to ignore him, and then follows her off the train. Much to her surprise, Fred asks if she’d like to have dinner that night. She refuses but he insists they’re destined to cross paths again. Ooh, creepy. Nope, just straight up strange and random.
Once Mariana joins Zoe at Cambridge, events move quickly. Right away she happens upon the crime scene and Julian a former classmate. He’s (conveniently) there to work on the case and willing to share information with her (ahem). He confirms the dead victim is Zoe’s friend Tara, and then asks Mariana if she’d like to join him for a drink later. She walks off without giving him an answer. Oh, Julian. TAKE A NUMBER. Later, when she catches up with Zoe, she learns that Tara named her killer. Zoe claims that Tara told her she was involved with a professor and it ended badly. When she threatened to tell the college, he told her he’d kill her.
Mariana is CONVINCED the professor must be the killer and urges Zoe to speak to the authorities.
Handsome and charismatic, Edward Fosca teaches Greek Tragedy at Cambridge – he’s popular with colleagues and students – and his classes are usually standing room only. He has an alibi for Tara’s murder, but Mariana is intrigued (read: obsessed) with his relationship to a group of beautiful girls collectively known as The Maidens, and believes there’s something untoward about Fosca’s relationship with the women; Tara was once a member of their group and Zoe acts oddly whenever she questions her about the professor. And so when two more Maidens are found dead, Mariana vows to prove Fosca is the killer. Meanwhile, Fosca has also FOR SOME UNFATHOMABLE REASON decided he’s romantically interested in Mariana, and since creepy guys liking her is sort of a thing, she ignores the warning signs in his eyes and blows him off. Which makes him mad.
So, girls are dying, creepy men (three at last count) are into Mariana, and Mariana, a therapist with no actual previous experience as a detective, decides to launch her own investigation and find the killer. She manages to annoy or tempt every man she meets, stumble upon clues the actual detectives keep missing, and reminisce about Sebastian whenever she isn’t fleeing possible suspects. She also wonders if Persephone somehow has it in for her. Um. Then every few chapters or so, we’re treated to a first person diary entry from the killer and/or a travel guide to life at Cambridge. None of it is very interesting; none of the people are likeable; and Mariana’s characterization is ridiculous.
Reader, Mariana has zero training as a detective, is borderline obsessed with Fosca, and relies on Fred (yep, he shows up on the regular) and Julian, plus a member of the cleaning staff to try and determine who’s killing the Maidens. She drops everything else in her life – including her patients (remember creepy stalker Henry?), to try and pin the murders on the professor despite the total and complete lack of evidence linking him to them. She knows Zoe knows more than she’s letting on, but never presses her, and despite the fact that all the men in her life seem to want to kill her or date her, she blindly carries on. There are lots of esoteric conversations about the rites of Persephone, the maiden, and her journey to the underworld that went totally over my head, and Mariana constantly drifts into memories of her dead husband. Suffice it to say it’s a hot, BORING, mess, and when the actual killer is revealed, I was surprised but not because I wasn’t able to predict who it was. I was surprised because the ending is so bizarrely gross and yuck and what the actual fuck. By then I was so exhausted by this pretentious story about unlikeable people and their sad lives, I just wanted it to be over. I wasn’t invested in the characters or the story – or sympathetic to the delusional Mariana. It’s a shockingly poor follow up to the author’s debut.
Friends, I’m a mystery/thriller fan. I belong to a book club that only reviews suspense novels! I won’t be recommending The Maidens to them – or to you. It’s a huge disappointment.