Anton Disclafani’s debut novel, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, has garnered a ton of press. It sold to Riverhead for $1 million plus. And no surprise, it’s been reviewed up, down and sideways. Pretty amazing for a historical novel about a teenage girl.
Set in 1930, 15-year-old Thea Atwell is exiled to the camp for the summer following some unknown, but evidently serious, misbehavior. She leaves behind her family and worst of all, Sam, her twin. On the plus side, it’s a riding camp, and Thea is quite the accomplished equestrienne… so it’s not so awful to be thrown into a new situation, if it includes horses.
Given the year, the age, and the gender of the heroine, it’s not surprising to find that Thea was sent away “because of a boy.” As the novel unfolds, Thea references and then finally recounts the story, which is much more disturbing than the reader expects. Meanwhile, at the school, Thea is upset to find that her camp-stay is not just summer long, but that she has been enrolled as a year-round student. Although she gets the occasional letter, her banishment is complete – Thanksgiving, then Christmas, happen in the Blue Ridge mountains, not in her Florida home.
You’d think an all-female boarding school would be a great place to stash a smart, but sexually precocious teenage girl. And yet, there are boys. And an unsuitable man. Yes, dear reader, Thea not only finds her place among the girls, but establishes a special relationship with the ever-so-attractive, fully-grown headmaster. Ay, carumba.
So, here’s what I liked about the novel: The writing is fantastic. Disclafani does an amazing job of parceling out the backstory to keep the suspense high, turning the book into a real page-turner. And it’s sexy as all get-out, from a woman’s point of view. It’s told as a kind of proto-feminist coming of age story.
But here’s the rub: Thea Atwell is 15 years old. And the adults in her life totally suck. Prior to her riding camp exile, she and her brother have been in a prison of her parents’ making, home-schooled with little exposure to any but family. No normal socialization. When the powder-keg of teenage sexuality is lit and feelings run high, there are three young lives in the balance. And when Thea is sent away to her next prison, it’s the “warden” who gives in to the temptation of Thea. Seriously, adults. Be adult. The children in your charge rely on you. I’ve read half-a-dozen reviews of the book, and nobody but me seems troubled by this. Instead, one picks over the sex as not sexy enough (Boston Globe), another loves the characterization (NYT) while another completely disagrees with that perspective and thinks the plot is predictable (Chicago Tribune), and one doesn’t seem to be reviewing it all, just recounting the plot (NY Daily News).
Well, maybe it’s just me. But I was left with a nagging sense of unease as I finished the novel, as Disclafani used the final pages to recount what happened through the years to Thea and her family members.