Full disclose: I read this book in June 2013, and it was instrumental in my reading renaissance. I didn’t blog back then, so this is a review from the archives. I wrote this right after finishing my finals in my junior year of college, and I think it maintained a little too much of an academic style.
Thea Atwell is a young girl who is sent away from her native Florida to Yonahlosse Riding Camp in North Carolina following her role in a family tragedy. She is originally resistant to life at Yonahlosse, but soon settles in and begins to adjust to life at camp. It’s an entertaining read, but definitely left me unsatisfied by the ending.
The plot spans about a year in Thea’s life. It alternates between Thea’s life at Yonahlosse and the story of what put her there in the first place, which is a style I really like, and I think it worked well for this kind of story. It was frustrating to not know the true reason Thea got sent to camp until about 2/3rds through the book, but it kept me reading fast.
Her life at Yonahlosse is often lackluster, and the story lacks a sense of flow. Time jolts around, characters are introduced and never mentioned again, two months pass and nothing really changes. I found myself waiting for the chapters about her past, which were much more interesting to me.
Thea is not a particularly likable character to me. One of the reasons she is sent to Yonahlosse is because she’s never been around girls her own age before. As a result, she has a hard time connecting and empathizing with them. She is headstrong and independent, but also careless of other peoples’ feelings. She adores horses, but is oddly okay with losing her childhood pony (“I was outgrowing him anyway”). DiSclafani tells us (over and over again) that Thea is so good at putting unpleasant memories out of her mind, and this has the effect of making it seem as if Thea never really bares the full weight of the emotional consequences of her actions. She does take a step towards the end of the book to save her friend, which is beautifully done and quite noble, but it also lined up with the course of action she was already planning on taking. Everything she did came off as quite self-serving, regardless of the feelings of others. The only characters I felt were really well-developed and likable were Thea’s twin brother, Sam, and her best friend at Yonahlosse, Sissy. But while these two characters are important in the first chapters of the novel, their stories end up being footnotes as Thea gets more involved in a doomed romance with an older man.
DiSclafani is a talented, lyrical writer. Her style reminds me a bit of Curtis Sittenfield, from whom there is a blurb on the book’s cover, and a thank you in the acknowledgements. DiSclafani is an experienced horseback rider herself, and her knowledge and love of horses came across nicely in Yonahlosse. DiSclafani describes the scenery of the North Carolina mountains beautifully, as well as the fields and orange grove of Florida. Sometimes the descriptions take over the actual action of the story, however, which left the book feeling exhausting and too long.
My biggest problems overall with the book was the ending (this will be spoiler-free). The ways in which Thea acts towards the end of the book emphasized how static her character had been over the course of the book. She behaves in the same way, treats people the same way, and generally uses the same ideas to rationalize her behavior as she did at the start of the novel. The end pages detail the rest of her life, as well as that of her family, and its frankly depressing and disheartening. It’s a sour note on which to end the book.
Overall, it’s not a great book, but I found it entertaining. A couple of other reviews mentioned that it was “unfinishable” to them, but I actually thought the last third of the book went really fast, if only because I was eager to have Thea pay some kind of consequences for her actions. If you love horses or are familiar with the story’s Southern settings, I think you will enjoy this book significantly more. Many parts of the book are well-thought out and nicely woven, but the overall plot and character development left me looking for much more.