Anton DiSclafani’s well-received debut novel The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls certainly received its fair share of acclamation upon publication. Described as sultry, lush and evocative by various reviewers, it’s a novel with considerable promise: stuffed with dark family secrets, the stifling traditions of the American South and a disgraced arrival a la Serena van der Woodsen make the novel compelling enough in theory, but lack the necessary impetus in reality.
Isolated Floridian teenager Thea Atwell is sent away to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp in the unfamiliar and distant North Carolinian mountains to escape a recent family tragedy. Predictably, the shameful family enigma slowly unravels throughout Thea’s stay, and as her love for the camp steadily grows, she comes to terms both with her previous actions and her tainted relationship with her parents. The main issue I encountered with the novel is its inability to transform its grand ideas about identity and privileged life into a subtle, fully developed story. Except from Thea and possibly Henry Holmes, the characters appear flat and stale, stock stereotypes whose reactions don’t seem quite real – particularly Thea’s twin Sam, whose seemingly uncomplicated nature in fact comes as childish and bland – and I often felt that fascinating elements of the novel’s plot (such as the comparative seclusion of her family and the effects of the Depression) could have been enhanced more instead of pursuing a fairly standard character development.
At times certain phrases or ideas – such as ostensibly tantalising teasers of plot development – seemed to be thrown in purely to advance the plot, rather than any real need for them being there, and although the novel proved to be fairly addictive reading, a little more subtlety and development could have improved the novel immeasurably. The denouement, although pleasingly unpredictable, also could have been delivered with more momentum. And (despite the fact that this is undoubtedly my fact for picking up a book with ‘riding camp’ in the title when I have absolutely no interest in horses) the descriptions of the horses were almost unanimously boring.
In my opinion, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls did not live up to its potential but I’d recommend giving the novel a try – all those great reviews must be worth something!