DiSclafani’s debut chronicles a teenager’s life-changing year at an elite boarding school in the North Carolina mountains.
Thea arrives at the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, expanded years earlier to a year-round school, in the summer of 1930. She has been sent away from her home in central Florida for an initially mysterious offense, and she bitterly regrets her exile from the isolated rural paradise she roamed freely with her twin brother, Sam. Though she frequently tells us she has rarely spent time with anyone other than relatives, Thea is a self-assured newcomer who quickly assumes a favored spot in the girls’ pecking order, partly because she’s taken up by popular Sissy, partly because she’s an excellent horsewoman, but mostly because this stunned survivor of family ostracism seems to her peers a cool, detached observer indifferent to their approval. In elegant prose that evokes the cadences of a vanished epoch, DiSclafani unfolds at a leisurely pace the twin narratives of Thea’s odyssey at school and the charged relationship with her cousin Georgie that led to a confrontation with Sam and disgrace. Sympathetic new friends, like the school’s headmaster, Mr. Holmes, help her see that her parents unfairly chose to punish her and protect Sam, but as Thea and Holmes move into an affair, she acknowledges the fierce, unabashed sexuality that frightened her family and means she will never be the sort of proper young lady Yonahlossee was designed to cultivate. Times are changing, even in this privileged enclave; several girls have to leave when their ruined fathers can no longer pay the bills, and Thea’s family is forced to sell the home she yearns for. DiSclafani writes with equal intelligence and precision about female desire and a rider’s kinship with her horse; her perfectly judged denouement allows Thea to simultaneously sacrifice herself for a friend and defiantly affirm that she will only be “a right girl” on her own terms.
An unusually accomplished and nuanced coming-of-age drama.