The setup of Anton DiSclafani’s debut novel, “The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls,” is irresistible: It’s 1930, the country is in the throes of the Depression, and 15-year-old Thea Atwell has been banished from her idyllic home on a Florida orange plantation to an elite riding camp-and-boarding school because of an unspecified scandal in her family. The tone of the novel’s opening pages is hushed and portentous, as DiSclafani creates an atmosphere of spooky anticipation and foreboding. So vivid are DiSclafani’s descriptions that one can almost feel the humidity in the air, taste the famed Yonahlossee iced tea, see the gorgeous vistas of Blue Ridge Mountains around the camp.
But alas, despite or perhaps because of its promising beginning, the novel is a huge disappointment. The details of Thea’s secret aren’t revealed until well into the book, but it’s clear from very early on that it involves inappropriate sexual activity. At this point my sense of pleasurable suspense was replaced by frustrated impatience, and then, finally, by a terrible sense of anticlimax.
The book has been praised as romantic and sexy, but to me, it was anything but. It’s not about romance at all and the sex scenes that riddle its pages are at best leaden and awkward, and at worst comical. There are a lot of throbbing groins and “slick” or “trembling” thighs, tongues thrusting and hands groping, groaning and moaning, but very little erotic energy or sensuous description.
But DiSclafani does well with descriptions about the ardent relationship between horses and their riders. An experienced rider herself, she has the knowledge to depict the world of equestriennes with persuasive accuracy. Even so, her analogies between riding and sex are sometimes laughably heavy-handed: “ ‘yes, yes, yes’ I murmured, in rhythm to his canter.”
With the exception of the dreadful sex scenes, DiSclafani is a clear, poised, un-showy writer. She has a gift for evoking a sense of time and place. But she is far less adept at characterization. The boarding school girls are types: the rich girl who gets her comeuppance, the kind-hearted peacemaker, the creepy oddball. We’re told again and again of Thea’s love for her twin brother, Sam, but we don’t see Sam’s lovability.
And as Thea embarks on another disastrously inappropriate relationship with an older, married man, the disjunction between DiSclafani’s evident aims and actual effects becomes clearer. She wants us to see Thea as an unconventional and passionate girl whose only crime is loving too much and in the wrong place and time. But despite her efforts to create a sympathetic proto-feminist heroine, Thea comes across as a sad, disturbed, insecure girl who would be adrift in any era. Moreover, Thea’s repeated attempts to blame others and her insistence on her own victimhood, her utter lack of remorse, make her impossible to like, as does her relentless need to get what she wants, no matter who or what is sacrificed in the process.
Thea is in quest of power more than sex, and her need to be more than “just a girl on a horse, like so many other girls” seems rooted in her family’s culture of exceptionality. The Atwells pride themselves on being “interesting”; they teach their children to think of themselves as “better than everyone else.” It is Thea’s pleasure in being chosen and singled out, her longing “to be admired” and to be watched, her craving for adoration, her desire to be “exceptional” that drives her into bad kinds of originality.
Toward the novel’s end, a supposedly mature, wise Thea reflects on her story: “My parents had sent me away because they saw I was a girl who wanted too much, wanted badly, inappropriately. And back then all that want was a dangerous thing.” But the problems with Thea’s rapacious, destructive kind of wanting aren’t limited to 1930s America. Perhaps today she’d be a ruthless, vindictive CEO or a star athlete with a dark side. This makes the book unromantic, but perhaps gives it a more particular interest: portrait of a teenage narcissist.Priscilla Gilman is the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child:
A Memoir of Unexpected Joy’’ (Harper) and a former professor of English literature at Yale and Vassar.