I loved this novel, at first - it's set in a tumultuous time (the Great Depression), in two equally rich and wondrous locations (the orange groves of central Florida and the majestic mountains of North Carolina), and it tells the gripping coming of age tale of a bold and somewhat esoteric girl named Thea Atwell (fraternal twin, accomplished equestrian, sheltered upper cruster). As the story opens Thea is being sent away to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls in North Carolina. She's been exiled from her Florida home for some unknown transgression, and the narrative alternates between her time at Yonahlossee and the previous year at home in Florida, slowly revealing exactly what happened to get her sent away.
The story is compelling and beautifully written, but as it moved along I found Thea to be more and more unlikable and unsympathetic. She's selfish and cruel and unstable, and I had issues in particular with her weird and aggressive sexuality. There are a lot of sexual encounters, both at home and at Yonahlossee, and they're bizarrely graphic in a "hard nipples through my thin nightgown" and "his fingers inside me" sort of way. I kept rolling my eyes and wondering how this story went so far off the rails and turned into Fifty Shades of Grey. And as others have noted, Thea's sexuality is much more dysfunctional and disturbing than it is scandalous, which seems a failure on the part of the book. It's like the author wanted to write something bold and empowering but ended up with something strange and sad. So towards the end of the book I felt like it had slipped from 5 stars to maybe 2.
Now that I'm finished and have taken some time to reflect on the book, I'm thinking maybe the author accomplished exactly what she meant to. She wrote a complicated, imperfect, totally screwed up character who still manages, at times, to be loving, brave and kind. Thea is very much a product of her circumstances, and looking back I think she does the best she can with what she has. Most importantly, she survives, and she learns to accept herself for who she is. Sure, she makes some terrible choices - but haven't we all? I think that's why I resented her so much at times; she evokes many of the things I dislike, and fear, about myself. But this makes Thea an honest, if flawed, character, and that's something I can appreciate.
I guess I should say it quickly and get it over with. I did not love The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls. I am most definitely in the minority but this certainly will not be the book of the summer for me. I should preface that I loved "Gone Girl" and "Indiscretion" and initially this book reminded me of "Prep" which I thought was outstanding. While this book effortlessly transported me to the 1930 Great Depression, for me it told a story that was hard to like. While it kept me reading, I found Thea's choices not scandalous just disturbing. Probably one of the few books I can think of where the subject matter was so objectionable.
15 year old Thea Atwell lives a sheltered life with her mother, father and twin brother. The story takes place during the Great Depression, however, Thea's family is well off. Her father is a respected country doctor and her mother has family money. Thea spends her days outside with her beloved twin brother Sam and her horse. The only visitors to the house are her father's brother and his wife and son, Georgie. Georgie is attracted to Thea and these feelings are reciprocated with consequences. Thea is the twin to be sent away to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls. More a finishing schools for wealthy girls, for the first time, Thea comes to realize that there is more to life than what can be found in the small town in central Florida where she was raised.
Thea is initially incensed that she has been sent away from her family, but quickly becomes acclimated to boarding school life. She becomes best friends with Sissy, a popular girl whose friendship helps Thea to "fit in". She also has a rival at the stables in Leona, who is considered the best rider. Thea is fighting an inner battle between the guilt she feels over her part in her families mishap, and the anger she feels about being the twin that is sent away. While at school, Thea once again makes a consciousness decision to throw caution to the wind.
" I was fearless. It was a trait that served me well in the ring, and badly in life"
While Thea is able to make cursory observations about herself and those around her, as a central character she is very selfish. It was also difficult for me to discern why she was so irresistible except that she was readily available. Thea is not particularly clever, articulate or even the prettiest girl at camp. At the end of the book, her one selfless act is for her own gain and cannot be viewed as any kind of personal transformation. It is only around horses that Thea demonstrates any real connection or compassion. While I do understand that Thea's is a journey of self-acceptance, her callousness for others in her pursuit left me cold. I felt the plot was at times contrived and I was left with questions about certain of the secondary characters that were never properly answered.
on June 29, 2013
Take a little bit of E.M. Forster, a little bit of Chekov, some Jane Austen, Brideshead Revisited, 50 Shades of Grey, Sex and the City, and any dime-a dozen romantic fiction you can find, and mix well. Set the story in Depression-era North Carolina, add horses, and cross your fingers that the illusion will hold that you've just written a great debut novel so you don't have to pay back your advance before selling many many copies of your "work".
There were so many things I didn't buy about this novels' storyline and I am stunned (and a little depressed) by the gushing reviews and the hype the book has received. One things is certain; the writer knows about horses. That's the one thing that struck me as real. But the setting - I couldn't see it, other than the weather and glimpses of the surrounding landscape. The characters -stereotypical and romanticized, but most of all unreal. Sam is the animal loving brother with no personality beyond saving baby squirrels. Georgie the cousin is handsome and vague until the affair, when the description of his penis is the most lasting image. Thea, the narrator, seemed to me nothing but the invention of the writer; I have no idea who she is and what she wants. The musings upon "Mother and Father" and the isolated childhood of Sam and Thea - why? Why doesn't she love her parents? What is a "progressive childhood"? Disclafani writes about people who are not complex or interesting but trapped in their own personalities: Leona is always stoic and competitive and proud, Sissy sweet and a little foolish, Mary Abbott odd and insecure. Where is the conflict between the characters? More urgently: what is the main conflict, the core of this book?
Good fiction is magical, it creates a reality out of words on the paper. When you finish a book, you ideally want to feel changed on some level. You've had a good time, you've traveled somewhere, you've felt fear, worry, delight, or sadness. Maybe you've laughed, or feel deeply moved. This novel keeps you occupied, but that's all. It has all the ingredients of a novel: plot, dialogue, characters, etc. but that simply doesn't suffice. Where is the tension, the subtext, the actual core of the book? The end result is nothing but a jumble. The story doesn't come together because I as a reader simply don't believe it. I don't believe the sex scenes, the interactions between the characters, the setting, or the emotions. The ending is the worst. Suddenly, after weaving back and forth between past and present, the author, seemingly sick and tired of her own novel which is going nowhere exciting after all the buildup, summarizes the rest of her life and the reader is supposed to feel something about the "formative" time the narrator spent at Yonahlossee as she leaves her family behind. But that's the problem. I feel nothing. No, not true. I feel deep concern for where the publishing industry is heading, if there was actually a bidding war over this insubstantial, mediocre novel.
on June 9, 2013
For an unworldly girl brought up in an isolated region of the country with a very limited social life with others, Thea shows an obsessive talent to get embroiled into sexual matters. The first instance I understand as it seemed like a natural teenage progression to fall in lust and proceed merrily and impulsively along but the second one? Lordy. I have to be cryptic here so as not to spoil anything but I didn't buy this scenario for a minute. Twice Thea voices anger at Sissy's need to not be more careful with her outings which made me think she'd at least wonder about her scary need to disrupt other people (family's) lives with her own reckless behavior, but no...
The payoff scene which was built up to throughout the major portion of the book was bewilderingly badly written. I had hope for so much more. What an ugly and unbelievable reaction to what many girls routinely deal with when devirginized. And the brother's reaction? This kid acted evilly and was protected by this family AND the law.
I am so surprised by so many people's favorable reviews regarding this book. "A series of events" which let everyone off the hook, me the reader included, I guess.
on August 18, 2013
I'm so glad I didn't buy this book for but instead waited for a library copy. Thea goes from incest to rape and doesn't care whose lives she destroys in the process--he cousin--her brother--her headmaster (and his marriage)-- and her horses all are destroyed by her selfishness and narcissism. This is not a "coming-of-age-in-the Depression-story" this is a character more like Cathy from "East of Eden;" a life without consequences, without remorse, without insight.
on May 3, 2013
By turns sexy, intriguing, cerebral and heartbreaking, this coming-of-age novel set in Florida and at an exclusive riding camp/boarding school for girls in the mountains of North Carolina during the Depression is an exquisite tour-de-force effort by debut novelist Anton Disclafani.
Fifteen-year old Thea Atwell is exiled by her well-to-do Florida family to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls for an infraction of social conventions so egregious that it threatens to destroy her entire world. Headstrong and fearless, Thea is a heroine who is growing to womanhood amid the antiquated social mores of pre-World War II America. For as long as Thea can remember, she has had three loves: her idyllic isolated home in central Florida, her twin brother, Sam, and horses. With the innocence of youth, she believes that her life will always be as it always has been until disturbing and unfamiliar feelings for her cousin, Georgie, start a chain of events which will ultimately unravel Thea's sheltered life.
When Thea is torn from her home and family and thrust into the complex competitive society of girls, horses, beauty and money at Yonahlossee, she begins the struggle to grow up and to understand her family, her sexual awakening and her place in the world. The novel is wonderfully atmospheric. The reader is utterly transported to young Thea's 1930's America where women were still expected to fulfill their lives by marrying well; where a girl's ability to run a household and sit a horse daintily and always behave herself are considered the ultimate attainments; and where an infraction of society's rules causes ruin.
Told in first person from Thea's point of view, this novel takes the reader on an epic journey that happens sometimes languidly, sometimes volcanically, but always fascinatingly. Thea is a fully-realized, amazingly original character whose change and growth throughout the novel are told with heartrending realism. This author's prose is absolutely true and beautifully expressed.
I literally could not put this book down, and recommend it highly.
on July 8, 2013
The authors childhood fondness for horseback riding sets the scene of this story about teenage angst, boarding school drama and a family scandal that changes a girl forever. Thea Atwell has lived with her family on their Florida farm since she was born but after a recent scandal her parents have sent her to The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls. The back story slowly unfurls as her time at camp passes.
Going in to this novel I had already seen many rave reviews for it and that it was also on several Summer Reading Lists. It's quoted as being 'lush, sexy and evocative'. Entertainment Weekly says '...the lovely descriptions of riding and adolescence have a spellbinding effect.' Kirkus Reviews called it "an unusually accomplished and nuanced coming-of-age drama." Suffice it to say I went into this with extremely high expectations. My overall opinion? This is one terribly dull book that is not helped by the attempts to shock and disgust by the author.
100+ pages in and it's brought to our attention that 2 months have passed but you could have fooled me considering nothing of consequence had actually occurred. (But honestly, nothing of consequence EVER seems to happen. The entire book.) The majority of those 100+ introductory pages felt like a whole bunch of inconsequential filler. It's also extremely disjointed and lacks a much needed flow. There's a dance, then they have riding lessons, and now it's bath time. It's never a full day though so it's difficult to grasp exactly how much time has even passed.
'I knew what it was like, to love horses. But I also knew what it was like to love humans. I knew what it was like to want, to desire so intensely you were willing to throw everything else into its fire.'
Lines like that if read without context would make me think this was a fascinating book about a headstrong and passionate girl. But the rest of the lines spoke of a girl that wasn't raised around anyone but family and had terrible trouble adapting with suddenly being shipped off to camp. Thea is a terribly awkward girl that seems extraordinarily confused with life in general and her purpose in it. It was not a joyful story to read about.
The writing was at times extremely well done but as a whole ended up being excessively descriptive and made the story feel long and drawn out. This was an extremely lackluster and disjointed story that only managed to keep me interested enough to find out the 'scandal' that caused her to be sent to camp in the first place. The shock factor was there, however, it lacked any significance and essentially ended up being overly superfluous and just left a bad taste in my mouth.
on July 22, 2013
This novel was a compelling and I found the time and settings beautifully written. The editorial reviews had me skipping other summer reads to turn my time to this one. How disappointing!
What I disliked were the characters - all of them! With the possible exception of a couple of the girls at the camp and one of the employees, I found nothing likeable or admirable among the many other characters. I did not like the lead, Thea and found her, as described by another reader, cruel and selfish. Her parents were an odd mix who failed on so many levels to connect with one another, their children, and the world of the 1930s depression. The aunt, uncle and cousin were also, not to be liked, on any level. The head master at the school breaks an ethical code that should have prevented him from engaging in a sexual relationship with Thea. I simply struggled to find any redeeming qualities among the many, flawed characters, including Thea's twin brother, who I really wanted to like.
This was a well-written novel that left me empty - bereft of any character to like, much less champion. When finished, I simply felt relief that I could move on to another novel.
Yonahlossee was a book club selection. I was never into horses, and can't digest a formulaic coming-of-age story unless the writing or the character is exceptional. Yonahlossee fails on both counts. We've got an unsympathetic, immature, self-absorbed, selfish, judgmental girl who lacks introspection and compassion to the extent that she seems almost sociopathic. But not in an interesting way.
The writer chose to create a depression-era Lolita and tart her up for the Fifty Shades crowd. It might have worked if she knew how to write a compelling phrase, but she doesn't. Thea gets up. Thea brushes her hair. Thea has lunch. Thea rides her horse. For hundreds of pages, most of which can be easily skimmed, thus making the overall reading experience less onerous than it might otherwise have been.
Readers hoping for a payoff at the end will be disappointed. Instead of the walloping flourish that you might expect from a book that's big on affectation but short on substance, there's a whimper of a wrap-up. You made me come all the way for that?
This book has a lot of five-star reviews, but if you check them out, they're mostly brief and blandly enthusiastic -- readers who struggled to come up with a sentence to describe the experience. If you're that kind of reader, you may adore this book. Otherwise, you're better off with Anne of Green Gables or maybe, if you're into horses, Black Beauty.
on August 23, 2013
I am completely mystified by the positive reviews of this book. The author has created a "heroine" who continually wrecks unapologetic destruction on other people's lives, and writes it off in the end as staying true to herself. It has been a long time since I disliked a character so intensely. So, if you want to read a story told by an unrepentant narcissist, by all means, read this book. The only thing positive I can say is that the author wrote nicely constructed sentences.