CBR-V Review #56: The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani

This book is a really good example of how important a novel’s title is. I barely knew anything about this book before I started reading it, other than the fact that it was supposed to be good, but the title totally sold me on it. Authors, take note! A creative and unique title will always grab my attention. As for the book itself, although it doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its excellent title, it’s pretty great.

Thea Atwell is a Floridian girl growing up during the Depression. We meet her as she’s on her way to the eponymous camp/school, a place for young women of means to learn how to be well-rounded ladies. The reason for her departure from her family is, at first, unknown; all that is revealed is that she did something bad, so bad that her parents can’t look her in the eye and her twin brother, Sam, won’t speak to her. As Thea’s past is revealed through flashbacks to her old life, she discovers her new world, one of horseback riding, schoolgirl crushes, and the complexities of teenage girls.

The best thing about this book is DiSclafani’s writing style. This book is atmospheric and gorgeous, and really transports you. I’ve been enjoying Southern writers a lot, lately, especially women like Karen Russell, who takes on a landscape that isn’t often recognized for its inherent beauty and simply celebrating it, and DiSclafani absolutely follows that tradition. Thea is also a good protagonist, for the most part, and there’s a sense of balance in her character, a push and pull between strength and weakness, fear and confidence, propriety and independence. I also really liked seeing the interpersonal relationships between the girls at Yonahlossee, and appreciated that the author doesn’t let the minor characters fulfill predictable stereotypes in a book about teenage girls (the rich bitch, for example, is far from a bully, and the strange girl with no friends has hidden depth, for example). DiSclafani also uses flashbacks effectively, and I really liked the “old life” sections of the book (maybe more than the Yonahlossee sections, actually). When I was reading the blurbs on the book jacket before I delved into the book itself, I thought it was sort of weird that two authors quoted both called this novel “sexy,” but after reading it, that’s a very good way to describe it. Without going into too much detail/giving away the plot, I’ll just say that DiSclafani writes sex scenes very, very well.

I did have some problems with the novel, though, namely that Thea’s motivations are kind of hard to understand at times–it doesn’t seem like she ever really thinks things through at all, and I never understood why she chooses to do the things she does. I couldn’t tell if DiSclafani was trying to make her out as a badass who defies societal expectations, because I often just found her to be kind of dumb and impulsive. I also felt like DiSclafani could have given a bit more nuance to the two big events of the book–it sort of ties back to Thea’s thought processes, but I felt like these two major moments just sort of happened really quickly without any kind of logical build-up, which was confusing and frustrating.

Overall, though, it’s a good read, and my issues with the book were outweighed by the many things I really did enjoy.

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