The Yonaholosee Riding Camp for Girls
Paperback, 432 pages
Riverhead Trade, June 3, 2014 (first published June 6, 2013)
Thea Atwell, 15, has been sent from her family home in Florida to attend a girls boarding school for the southern elite, one at which she will learn to become an accomplished horsewoman. Over the course of her stay, she learns to navigate this world filled with young women, much different from the isolated life she led at home with her parents and twin brother, while she recovers from a mysterious tragedy in which she has played a central role.
I had high hopes for Yonaholossee after all of the rave reviews it received. It was described as spellbinding, lush, provocative, and smart. It even made Oprah's Summer Reading List.
Initially, I found the book a page turner. I was drawn into the vivid world DiSclafani described - first the hushed, sheltered world that Thea grew up in, and then the majestic wild of the mountains in which the camp is nestled. The social structure of the camp, with it's regional cliques and finishing school schedule (yes, French was a part of the curriculum) created a picture of life for wealthy young women on the verge of the Great Depression.
My problem with this novel, however, is simply how unlikable Thea is. When the reader is first introduced to Thea, she is a quiet girl, reluctant to leave her father's side. She is timid and shy but has a deep love for horses, and we are treated to hints about a family scandal that ruined her family's life back home in Florida. As Thea becomes more acclimated to her life at the camp, she has to make choices about her relationships with the other girls, as well as with the adults in her life. She does not simply make bad choices of the kind you would attribute to a girl her age, but dangerous and disturbing choices that made me question the author's purpose for this character. Thea was also an extremely selfish character, which is to be expected at her age, but without a transformation into a young woman more cognizant of her situation in life, the novel's ending was weak, rushed, and ultimately disappointing.
In addition, the other characters were not well developed and felt like shallow stereotypes. Her brother was described as an animal lover with no other apparent characteristics. Sissy, Thea's friend at the camp, was a sweet girl that everyone liked but was sheltered and foolish. The adults are even worse - her parents are portrayed as having created a "progressive childhood," but it is never explained why they kept their children so sheltered and separate, or if they had desires and hopes of their own.
In the end, this was a book I truly wanted to like, but just couldn't find much about it to enjoy.