Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Review: The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani

This was one of the big buzz books of 2013 and I kept hearing it mentioned, saw it on lists, and spotted it not only on the front tables at bookstores but also on the shelves of places that typically only have a couple of shelves of books like Target and Walmart. Clearly there was a big push behind this book. And yet there was something about it that kept me from picking it up and adding it to my embarrassingly large collection until my book club chose it. I will say that I found it both better and worse than I expected. Perhaps a better description would be unsettling and curious.

Thea Atwell is 15 when the novel opens and her father is taking her to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina from her home in Florida. The year is 1930 and the Great Depression is ever present, if only directly confronted when another girl or two can no longer afford tuition at this school for the rich is sent home. Thea does not want to go to school, does not want to be separated from her twin brother Sam, but she is essentially being banished for an as yet unstated and unforgivable transgression. Thea assumes that she is only spending the summer at the camp but in actual fact, she's been exiled for the school year, the truth of which comes to her slowly as she settles into Yonahlossee. The school is an equestrian boarding school, a sort of finishing school for the horsy set and Thea should fit in reasonably well, being a fearless and intense rider already. Despite her secluded upbringing, having had only her twin and her older cousin Georgie as companions throughout her childhood, she is quickly attuned to the school hierarchy, shunning the girl everyone else does, respecting the remote Leona, and becoming friends with the all-around popular Sissy.

As Thea navigates the terrain of this all girl's world, the narrative flashs back to the lead up to the incident that got her sent away in the first place. It sets out her personality and the way in which she knowingly pursues that which she wants, regardless of its rightness. The scandal is not much of a surprise really, its revelation more like a slow motion car accident the reader is powerless to stop. And it is also not a surprise when the scandal from home is replicated on a grander scale at school given Thea's competitive and headstrong personality.

Thea comes across as coldly emotionless, predatory, and calculating, making it difficult to sympathize with her as a character. DiSclafani sets her main character up to recognize her lack of value as a girl in her time period, given her acknowledgement that her brother Sam was the wanted, expected, and valued boy but then doesn't really examine this or the way in which it might have formed Thea in any sort of real depth. There is also a question of whether the reader is meant to find Thea to be a reliable narrator or not. Although the story is told by Thea at a remove of many years, she seems to have no insights into her motives or actions from the time and still seems surprised by the fact that other characters view her very differently than she viewed herself: pointing out that she was always staring and aloof, calling her sneaky or sly and so forth. In fact, her interactions with some of the help at camp, including Docey, the young woman who cleans her cabin, also point to the fact that the Thea our narrator presents is a bit of a shimmering mirage.

The writing here is beautifully done but the pacing is glacially slow. If this is intentional in order to increase the tension before the reveal of Thea's sins, both at home and at camp, it is unnecessary as the what of her misdeeds is never in doubt, nor, frankly, is the extent of them; it is only how soon they will occur. This is certainly a coming of age, and meant to be a passionate one but Thea is less passionate than greedy and even Machiavellian. DiSclafani has done a good job depicting the social strata that cuts through the camp and the shifting loyalties of and competitions between girls on the cusp of womanhood. She stumbles a bit in suggesting that Thea's own mother would confide a scandal of such a huge magnitude in a former schoolmate, Yonahlossess's headmistress, a woman she was only friends with as a way for the powers that be at her own school to tamp down her wild ways and who still maintains a connection to so many of their mutual acquaintances. But this unlikely confidence has to drive the novel and fuel Thea's misbehavior even more and so it stands. The majority of the novel is slow and languid with very little sense of time passing and yet the ending comes across as abrupt and unsatisfactory, perhaps in part because the much older Thea narrating the story still seems unable to accept any culpability for the events that changed the trajectory of so many lives. Despite these flaws, the novel kept us talking about incest, reputation, power, and sexuality for quite a while.


  1. Wow, what a wonderful review! I've looked at this book on bookstore shelves for over a year and still haven't decided if I want to get it or not. Thanks for giving me more information.

  2. I've had this one on my TBR for a while now and I keep not reading it. While it sounds like I may have a few issues with it overall, I'll probably give it a go anyway, just to see. We never really know 'til we try!


I have had to disable the anonymous comment option to cut down on the spam and I apologize to those of you for whom this makes commenting a chore. I hope you'll still opt to leave me your thoughts. I love to hear what you think, especially so I know I'm not just whistling into the wind here at my computer.

Popular Posts