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Jenna Bush Hager says her November 2022 Read With Jenna pick is 'the perfect mystery'

“I have recommended it to everybody that I possibly can. It's about as Gothic and mysterious as you can get," Jenna said.
Jenna Bush Hager
Nathan Congleton / TODAY

Jenna Bush Hager said her November Read With Jenna book pick satisfied her “mystery obsessed” mind. “I have recommended it to everybody that I possibly can because I feel like it's the perfect mystery,” she said.

The pick? “The Cloisters,” an evocative debut novel by Katy Hays. As the title suggests, the novel is set in the Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted entirely to the art and architecture of the Middle Ages. Located in northern Manhattan, the Cloisters was designed to look like a French abbey.

"The Cloisters" by Katy Hays

“It’s about as Gothic and mysterious as you can get,” Jenna said of the novel.

This is Read With Jenna’s second mystery novel — and the first book to come paired with an event, while supplies last. Readers can join Jenna and author Hays for a Conversations and Cocktails live virtual event on Nov. 29 at 6:30pm ET. Find our more information on how to buy the book and the event ticket here.

In the book, Ann, a medievalist, graduates from college in Washington State hoping to pursue a career in academia. At the Cloisters over one summer, she gets an opportunity for a career-defining scholarly breakthrough — but it means being pulled into a web between Rachel Mondray, a wealthy and brilliant assistant, and head curator Patrick Roland.

There’s also Leo, the alluring gardener at the Cloisters. “He reminds me of Heathcliff in ‘Wuthering Heights.’ Everyone needs a Leo phase, and I don’t think I had one,” Jenna said, laughing.

“The book reminds me of ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley,’ but with twists that are 'Gone Girl.' It's a story about female ambition and what's permissible when one person is born on Park Avenue and given everything, and the other person has to work hard for what they want,” she said.

Rachel, Ann and Patrick’s work is centered around assembling an incomplete deck of tarot cards from the Middle Ages in an attempt to prove they were used for divination. They use the deck to shed light into their future along the way. “It’s the perfect mystery on the outside. But inside it covers deep themes of destiny and fate,” she said.

Speaking to TODAY, Hays — who works as an art history professor in California — said she consulted tarot cards to write the book, which is peppered with tarot reading and interpretations.

“I did readings for the book itself. I’d pull a card and see if it would help me work through a scene or a chapter,” she said. “Sometimes it really did work. People can use tarot in different ways. The book deals with tarot divination, but you can use it for creative practices, too.”

Hays explained that “The Cloisters” came about through “a sad story” and a string of bad luck. Her first novel was not accepted by a publishing house. Then, she broke her leg. Without anywhere to go, she started plugging away at “The Cloisters.”

“I think being trapped at my kitchen table in some ways really helped me write the book because I wanted every day to go to a place that felt more magical,” she said.

She continued, “As a reader and as a writer, I'm always really interested in traveling on the page and I want to go and spend time in places that really reward my attention.” For Hays, that was the Cloisters — a “jewel box” located in Fort Tryon Park.

To inform the charged and insular environment of the book, Hays drew on her time in academia and museums, which she said make great settings for thrillers. “They are the closed worlds with their own set of rules that feel so far from the real world,” she said, adding that they’re also “hyper competitive.”

“The Cloisters” is a book about fate and free will. And while the characters are now fated toward their destinations, only time will tell if you’re able to beat them there. As for Jenna? “I definitely didn’t see the ending coming,” she said.