Genre: Adult Historical Fiction (set in the South in the 1920s)
This is a beautifully rendered, atmospheric gem of a book about a young girl learning who she is without her family. There were many things that surprised and delighted me about it. But first, here's a synopsis from Shelfari:
"A lush, sexy, evocative debut novel of family secrets and girls’-school rituals, set in the 1930s South. It is 1930, the midst of the Great Depression. After her mysterious role in a family tragedy, passionate, strong-willed Thea Atwell, age fifteen, has been cast out of her Florida home, exiled to an equestrienne boarding school for Southern debutantes. High in the Blue Ridge Mountains, with its complex social strata ordered by money, beauty and girls’ friendships, the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is a far remove from the free-roaming, dreamlike childhood Thea shared with her twin brother on their family’s citrus farm — a world now partially shattered. As Thea grapples with her responsibility for the events of the past year that led her here, she finds herself enmeshed in a new order, one that will change her sense of what is possible for herself, her family, her country. Weaving provocatively between home and school, the narrative powerfully unfurls the true story behind Thea’s expulsion from her family, but it isn’t long before the mystery of her past is rivaled by the question of how it will shape her future. Part scandalous love story, part heartbreaking family drama, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is an immersive, transporting page-turner — a vivid, propulsive novel about sex, love, family, money, class, home, and horses, all set against the ominous threat of the Depression — and the major debut of an important new writer."
What I loved about this book, in no particular order:
1. It's atmospheric as hell. I felt myself being sucked in from the very first page by the two rich worlds the author created: the tangled Florida orange groves and stately house Thea grew up in, and the pine-wooded, mountainous North Carolina girls' camp she finds herself outcast to. Both settings were ones I found myself happy to get lost in for hours at a time, sucked in by the fascinating details and the deft way she made each place an important character in Thea's story. This aspect of the writing reminded me very much of Charles Frazier's Nightwoods - the highest compliment a book can get, in my world.
2. The story revolves around a mystery that takes its take revealing itself. We are given to understand, early on, that Thea gets sent away to camp because she's done something bad, very bad (which, for a girl in the 1920s, can safely be assumed to have to do with sexual misconduct). Instead of finding out about it all at once, the story takes us back and forth between her childhood memories and her present time at the camp, weaving the two together so that they blur beautifully, but never totally merge.
3. The heroine herself. Thea felt to me like a real teenager: she's sometimes fragile, sometimes strong, often confused but also steadfast. She was full of all the contradictions that we all carry, but wrapped in the notion that she is defined by her family. I loved watching her slowly come to realize that there was both pain and real freedom in knowing that she is her own entity, separate from the people who 'own' her. She was not a wilting flower, and she was not afraid to make mistakes.
4. The finely-woven relationships: between twins, between girlfriends, between parent and child, between young girl and inappropriate lover. I loved the way this author told us volumes about these relationships without stating it explicitly, through hand gestures and things done unsaid.
And, of course, the writing itself: it is lyrical and lovely, does a wonderful job with dialogue, and generally feels as if it's been sewn together by a masterful hand.
It may be early to call this, but I'm going to go ahead and say it: this is going to be one of the most surprisingly magical and memorable reads of my year.