Book review and synopsis for The Maidens by Alex Michaelides, A mystery involving Greek mythology and a secret society.
In The Maidens, Mariana finds herself the on idyllic campus of Cambridge University after her niece Zoe's closest friend, Tara, has been murdered. Zoe believes the murderer is Professor Edward Fosca, the handsome and popular Greek tragedy professor on campus. Fosca is charismatic and idolized by his students, especially a group of female students known as The Maidens, named after the goddess Persephone.
Despite his alibi, Mariana is convinced of Fosca's guilt and is drawn into the investigation, which soon grows more complicated when another body is found.
In this mystery involving Ancient Greek rites and brutal murders, Mariana becomes determined to unmask the killer, even as she risks endangering herself.
The one-paragraph version: Mariana is a young widow whose husband Sebastian died in a swimming accident last year. She goes to visit her niece Zoe at Cambridge after Zoe's friend Tara is found murdered. Zoe suspects Edward Fosca, a handsome and popular professor who Tara had been sleeping with. Mariana gets drawn into investigating Fosca as well as the Maidens, a cult-like group of women who idolize Fosca. Tara had been one of the Maidens and soon two more of the women are found dead. In the end, it's revealed that Zoe is the killer. Zoe had been lovers with Sebastian, who married Mariana for money. After his accident, Zoe decided to continue with his plan of murdering Mariana (to get her fortune). The plan was to involve Mariana in an investigation into a series of murders (all committed by Zoe), frame Fosca and finally kill Mariana. However, Mariana manages to fight Zoe off, and Zoe ends up arrested and taken to a psychiatric facility.
The Prologue introduces Mariana, who is certain that a man named Edward Fosca has murdered two people. She is determined to find a way to prove it.
In Part I, the book flashes back to a few days prior. Mariana is a young widow who is grieving her late husband Sebastian, who drowned a year ago. On the news, it's reported that a young woman (Tara) has been murdered, who turns out to be a close schoolmate of Mariana's niece Zoe (whose own parents died in a car accident). Zoe says that just before Tara's death, Tara had been scared that a professor there that she'd been sleeping with, Edward Fosca, would kill her.
Mariana goes to Cambridge to see Zoe. They learn that the handsome and popular Professor Fosca has an alibi, backed up by his students. But Zoe still suspects him, and Mariana gets drawn into the investigation when it seems like the police aren't properly investigating Fosca.
In Part II, Mariana learns more about Fosca and a group of his favorite students -- all well-connected and intelligent women -- who are part of his private study group. The women are referred to as the Maidens, a reference to Persephone, the goddess of death. In Greek, Persephone is referred to "Kore" which means "maiden". Tara had been one of them.
Mariana attends one of Fosca's lectures where he talks about an Ancient Greek cult, the cult of Eleusis, inspired by Persephone's mythological journeying from death to life and back again. And as Mariana's investigation progresses, the body of another student, Veronica (also a Maiden), is discovered.
The story is also interspersed with journal-entry-like chapters written by an unnamed person, who describes his childhood growing up with an abusive father on a farm. He talks about how one part of him is sane and calm and the other part of him is a bloodthirsty killer.
In Part III, the pathologist confirms that Veronica was killed by the same person as Tara. They were both found with their throats cut and stabbed post-mortem. A pinecone was also found on each of their bodies. And Mariana finds postcards with quotations from Euripides about death and sacrifices, handwritten written in Ancient Greek, in their possession.
When Fosca notices Mariana's interest in him, he invites her to dinner. There, he tells Mariana about how the pinecone was a symbol given to each initiate into the cult of Eleusis and about his unhappy childhood on a farm. Mariana also sees his copy of Euripides complete works with on of the quotations on the postcards underlined, making her certain he is the murderer.
In Part IV, Mariana sees Fosca give Morris (the head porter on campus) an envelope, and she follows Morris and sees him have sex with one of the Maidens, Serena. Soon, Serena is found dead as well, and Mariana finds one of the postcards (with the Ancient Greek quotes) under her own door.
In the journal-like chapters by the unknown person, we learn that when he is 12, his mother finally plans to leave his father. However, when he realizes she doesn't intend to take him with her, he is filled with murderous hatred towards her.
In Part V, Morris is arrested after Mariana tells the police inspector what she saw (though Mariana disagrees with them and thinks it implicates Fosca moreso than Morris). Zoe also finally admits to Mariana that she attended one of Fosca's initiation ceremonies, but ran away once he started kissing and touching her.
When Zoe reveals that she, too, received a postcard (with the Ancient Greek quotes), Mariana decides it's time for them to get out of Cambridge. Before they head out, Zoe insists on fetching a knife from the ceremony (which she suspects was used in the murders) so they have it as evidence.
In the interim, in Zoe's room, Mariana finds a letter (which turns out to be what the journal-like chapters of the book are) written to Zoe, where the author explains that he wrote it so Zoe could understand him, and he professes his love for Zoe. (Mariana assumes the letter-writer is Fosca.)
When Zoe and Mariana soon find the knife from the ceremony, Zoe reveals her intention to kill Mariana. Zoe admits that Sebastian was the author of the letter and that they were in love. Sebastian married Mariana for her father's fortune, and he was the one who formulated this elaborate plan to murder her. After his accidental death, Zoe decided to carry out his plan. Zoe intentionally involved Mariana in this investigation into these murders (all committed by Zoe for this purpose), framed Fosca and finally intends to make Mariana look like the final victim.
However, Mariana is able to overpower Zoe (with help from Fred, a guy who has a crush on Mariana), and Zoe ends up injured and being arrested.
In the Epilogue, Zoe ends up institutionalized. Fosca is fired for sleeping around with all the Maidens (Morris was blackmailing him over it). The book ends with Mariana finally going to talk to Zoe.
In The Maidens, Alex Michaelides is back with a new murder mystery (due to be published June 15 in the States), this time one involving a secret society based in Greek mythology at Cambridge.
I’m not much for stories about secret societies typically, but I thought the plot twist in Michaelides’ previous novel The Silent Patient was clever enough that I really wanted to read something else from him.
I was pleased, then, to see that the secret society in The Maidens bares little resemblance to the old boys’ clubs found on U.S. campuses that these stories are typically about. Instead, in The Maidens, the secret society in question involves a group of well-connected young women who flock around their favorite professor — the handsome and possibly murderous Professor Fosca. The Maidens are named after Persephone, the goddess of death. In Greek, Persephone is referred to “Kore” which means “maiden“.
The writing in The Maidens is a step up from The Silent Patient and is definitely above average for the genre. I ended up reading this book straight through, and it went by quite quickly. Michaelides also evokes Greek mythology and literary references in the plotline in ways that are substantive and evocative.
In general, I thought the buildup of the story and the mystery was really enjoyable to read. I liked how fully formed the character of Mariana was. Michaelides also adds a variety of compelling mystery elements to the story, like the cryptic postcards each victim receives prior to their death.
Also, for fans of The Silent Patient, Theo Faber and Ruth (the main character and a side character in Michaelides’ previous novel) make brief appearances in this book.
Punting in Cambridge
There are so many things I liked about this book, that I almost feel bad saying that the main caveat about reading it is that the ending is just okay. I wouldn’t say it’s bad, but it certainly feels a little “meh”. I thought it was fine, though I don’t know that anyone will be particularly impressed by it. I’m hesitant to say more, since I don’t want to give anything away, but suffice to say it sort of works, but it certainly doesn’t feel quite as clever as the end of The Silent Patient.
I would also add that there ends up being a few too many loose threads in the story for my liking. I generally prefer “neater” mysteries where most parts of it end up being explained in some way. Instead, there’s a bunch of mysterious-seeming occurrences that just end up being coincidences and a few things play a large role in the novel, but then fade into the background.
Read it or Skip it?
I found The Maidens to be an inverse of The Silent Patient. With The Silent Patient, I thought the ending was fantastic, but the writing and narrative arcs left something to be desired. With the Maidens, I thought the writing and overall story arcs were much more solid, but the ending was just okay.
Nevertheless, I think both books are worth reading if you’re a mystery-thriller fan. The Silent Patient is probably the more memorable of the two just because it’s got such a great plot twist, but The Maidens is still a solid entry in the genre.
The Maidens also makes effective and substantive use of the mythological aspects of the story, so mystery-thriller fans who also love the classics should definitely take note. It adds layer of meaning that you don’t see too often in mystery-thrillers.
If you’re not someone who typically reads mystery-thriller genre novels, you might want to skip this. It’s very much a genre novel (as opposed to literary fiction with a mystery twist).
I love mystery-thrillers and liked both of his books enough that I definitely plan on reading whatever Michaelides publishes next. Even with the lackluster ending and some loose threads, the Maidens is an enjoyable, thrilling and well-written read, and I’m excited to see what he comes up with in the future!
P.S. I just read this review of The Maidens from the Washington Post and felt it was totally unfair. The reviewer seems to take issue chiefly with the idea that Fosca could blatantly hang out with a group of beautiful women and not be stopped by campus administrators.
I don’t know what perfect world this person lives in that they think colleges actually follow through on their policies all the time. I graduated not too long ago from a grad program where one of my professors was a gay man who would handpick (not based on any criteria, he would “randomly choose”) hot guys to serve as leaders for group projects and have a bunch of special meetings for only the group leaders. It completely excludes women from leadership roles in his class, and he makes sexually suggestive comments about the guys during class. He’s done this for years and years and no one does anything about it because that professor is also a big-ticket donor. So, no, I didn’t find the situation far-fetched at all.
Let’s talk about the ending. The Sebastian thing definitely felt a little out-of-the-blue. The clues that point towards the reveal at the end are somewhat…sparse and pretty vague. (I’ve listed all the ones I could identify in the Explanation section at the end. If there’s something I’m missing, please let me know!)
Moreover, the psychology of it doesn’t entirely ring true to me. Sebastian (who wrote the letters) describes himself as being driven by bloodlust and rage, but that seems incongruous to me for him to kill out of what appears to be expediency (to get Mariana out of the picture) and pragmatism ($$$).
Also, if Sebastian is a gold-digger, why does he marry Mariana when he thinks she’s going to be disinherited?
Anyway, there are so many aspects of this book that felt were very carefully considered and that I enjoyed a lot, but the ending just didn’t quite do it for me. I’m still glad I read it, though. I’m curious to hear what others thought about it!
The Maidens, Explained!
I’ve tried to answer what I’m guessing are the questions people will have about this book. But if you’ve got other questions, feel free to drop a comment, and I will answer if I can!
Where can I find a full plot summary for The Maidens by Alex Michaelides?
Right here! You can find a quick recap and a lengthier version of the summary over here.
Can you explain the ending? How does The Maidens end?
In the end, it’s revealed that Zoe is the killer. Zoe had been lovers with Sebastian (Mariana’s late husband) since she was 15, and she says that Sebastian only married Mariana for money. After Sebastian’s death, Zoe decided to continue with his plan of murdering Mariana (to get her fortune).
The plan was to involve Mariana in an investigation into a series of murders (all committed by Zoe), frame Fosca and finally kill Mariana. However, Mariana manages to fight Zoe off, and Zoe ends up arrested and taken to a psychiatric facility. The book ends with Mariana finally going to see Zoe after Theo (Zoe’s doctor) reminds her that Zoe, too, is a victim.
Who is the red-headed woman in Theo’s office?
It’s not stated explicitly, but I think it’s safe to assume that it was Alicia Berenson (the secondary main character and titular “silent patient” in The Silent Patient).
What was the killer’s motive?
While Zoe carries out the murders, Sebastian is the true villain of the novel since he started sexually abusing Zoe when she was 15. According to Zoe, Sebastian was a gold-digger who married Mariana for her money. He later wanted her out of the picture, but he still wanted to get his hands on the money, so Mariana needed to die.
Zoe ends up with a very unhealthy attachment to Sebastian, as an orphaned girl who has been used by him for years. She seems to idolize him, and ends up wanting to carry out Sebastian’s plan after he’s dead as some sort of tribute to him or to fulfill his wishes.
Zoe very specifically describes the deaths of the Maidens (Tara, Serena and Victoria) as a mere “red herring” — only serving as part of the plot to kill Mariana.
The ending seemed totally out of left field! What clues were there about the killer’s true identity?
So, it seems like most people, including myself, are feeling like the end (with Sebastian & Zoe being lovers and Sebastian planning the murder that Zoe carried out) seems a bit out-of-the-blue. Still, there are some clues in the book, namely:
– Zoe is the one who insists and guilts Mariana into staying, saying that it’s what Sebastian would have done.
– Zoe is described as having emotional problems as a kid (due to her parents dying when she was young) and is described as having difficulty making friends.
– Elsie mentions Zoe’s rude/unkind attitude towards her, and Zoe responds rather callously when it’s brought to her attention. Zoe implies that Elsie is nuts, but given how the book ends, it serves as another clue that Zoe may not be as nice as Mariana thinks.
– Mariana discusses how Sebastian is not close to his parents, that they’re divorced and that “he felt they hadn’t given him a good start in life” (it’s discussed in a financial sense of them being poor, but perhaps he meant that in other ways as well).
– Mariana consistently narrates that Zoe is not telling her something, and she acknowledges that she may be misreading Zoe’s emotions.
– Mariana prays to the goddesses (Demeter and Persephone) in Naxos, and Sebastian is then shrouded in darkness and dies the next day. Mariana assumes it’s because she offended the gods, but in the end you realize that (if you accept the superstitious take on things) her prayer protected her from him. Then, when she prays again, they reveal the love letter in Zoe’s bedroom. I thought this was one of the cleverer aspects of this book.
– Mariana mentions that she saw Sebastian as being similar to her father, and Ruth warns Mariana that she has a blind spot for how she sees her father. Ruth also suggests that Mariana’s relationship with her father is central to the investigation somehow. (That said, saying that he’s similar to her father really isn’t that much of a clue since her father was emotionally distant, not a bloodthirsty psychopath.)
– Mariana mentions how her father thought Sebastian was a gold-digger and threatened to disinherit her to prevent her from marrying him. When you read this, the assumption is that her father is being a jerk, but I guess it’s possible he saw what Mariana couldn’t see. When he doesn’t follow through on his promise to disinherit her, which may have indicated he wasn’t trying to be mean, just trying to protect her. The problem with this as a “clue” though is that if Sebastian was a gold-digger, why would he marry her after her father threatened to disinherit her?
If you find something that’s not listed here, please do drop a comment!
Who wrote the letters? When was it written? What was the deal with the two torn out pages? What does he mean about being split in two and having felt that before?
So, first, the easier question.
Who wrote the letter?
Sebastian is the author of the letter which is intended as a love letter for Zoe.
When was the letter written?
The letter is a somewhat confusing part of the book. In total, there are 8 chapters in the book by Sebastian. Only the first one is dated — October 7 — but with no year attached, and only the last one has a closing (yours, forever). This seems to indicate that the 8 parts constitute one letter.
The book opens in October, but by that time Sebastian has been dead for over a year, which means it must have been written over two years ago. My guess is that it was written right after Sebastian kills Mariana’s father (see the part about being “split in two”, below)
What was the deal with the two torn out pages?
The letters also reference a journal which was written when Sebastian was 12 in response to what happened with his mother. In the last part of the letter, it’s explained that two pages (of his childhood journal, not of this letter) are missing from that journal. He destroyed them because they were “dangerous” and “because they told a different story”. Instead, he indicates that he wishes he could “revise” those years at the farm.
My interpretation of this is that there is some part of his story that he is unable to face. Most likely, I think Sebastian killed his mother after learning she wanted to leave him (which is what the two missing pages of his journal described), which contradicts what his letter says (because he can’t face his actions, he “revised” events to say she simply left). He acknowledges that as an adult, what he wants from his mother is an apology and for her to beg him for forgiveness, not for her death. (But it’s likely it’s too late for that because she’s dead, though he’s unable to face that he was responsible.)
What does he mean by feeling “split in two” and the “yellow light” and whatnot?
Sebastian knows there is a part of him that is calm and sane and a part of him that is bloodthirsty. However, there are two specific mentions of feeling “split in two” and then faced with a “horrible yellow light”, at two separate points in his life. My theory is that this occurs after he has killed someone.
(Even though he knows there are two sides to him all the time, it’s only when he’s done something terrible that the two parts have to separate — since the sane part of him wouldn’t do that — and he feels “split in two”. The “horrible yellow light” comes into play when the run rises in the morning and he realizes what he has done in the light of day.)
The first instance is when he is 12, after his “dream” about killing his mother (which I think was not a dream at all, but it’s something that actually happened that he is unable to face). The second instance is right before he writes the letter (which I’m guessing is when killed Mariana’s father).
Zoe tells us that Sebastian killed Mariana’s father after he caught the two of them fooling around in the olive grove. We also know something has just happened when Sebastian starts writing the letter because it starts off very frantic. In the second part, he talks about feeling split in two, the yellow light, and vaguely remembering feeling this way once before. As the letter continues, he describes digging into his memories and recognizing the other time he felt this way was when he was 12, involving his mother.
Let me know if you have another take on this, but this is what I was able to gather from it!
Recommended Published June 15, 2021
Page Count 352 pages
Goodreads3.71 (out of 5)
From the Publisher
In The Maidens, Edward Fosca is a murderer. Of this Mariana is certain. But Fosca is untouchable. A handsome and charismatic Greek tragedy professor at Cambridge University, Fosca is adored by staff and students alike―particularly by the members of a secret society of female students known as The Maidens.
Mariana Andros is a brilliant but troubled group therapist who becomes fixated on The Maidens when one member, a friend of Mariana’s niece Zoe, is found murdered in Cambridge.
Mariana, who was once herself a student at the university, quickly suspects that behind the idyllic beauty of the spires and turrets, and beneath the ancient traditions, lies something sinister. And she becomes convinced that, despite his alibi, Edward Fosca is guilty of the murder. But why would the professor target one of his students? And why does he keep returning to the rites of Persephone, the maiden, and her journey to the underworld?
When another body is found, Mariana’s obsession with proving Fosca’s guilt spirals out of control, threatening to destroy her credibility as well as her closest relationships. But Mariana is determined to stop this killer, even if it costs her everything―including her own life.