Book Review: The Few, The Brave, The Yonahlossee

Posted: August 19, 2013 in Uncategorized
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I haven’t written reviews as of late because I haven’t read anything I’ve been particularly excited about. Quite the opposite: Most of the books I’ve picked up have disappointed in some way or another, and I don’t want to be a downer of a reviewer and have this blog turn into a “Books I Don’t Like” spiel. But I’m going to go ahead and Eyore all over The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls. [Warning: Spoilers Ahead] Given the great press, I was really excited for this book. I was enjoying it until about halfway through, when I realized there was no big family drama mystery coming around the corner. From the affair with Mr. Holmes on, it was a sharp descent into displeasure. The plot of the novel is thus:

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.

I took the above paragraph from Amazon because I couldn’t be bothered to recap the novel myself. It strikes me re-reading that paragraph now is how some things are built up that don’t really come to fruition in the books. For example, Thea’s sense of her self in relation to her country is very superficial – this girl has to leave camp because her father lost his money, so does that one. I didn’t see Thea as particularly strong-willed or headstrong. Even when she is making active choices (to continue to visit Decca in hopes of seeing Mr. Holmes, for example), the book is written in such a way it constantly feels like things are happening TO her. And when she does make choices, they are destructive and disturbing. This is my biggest complaint of the book: It had so much promise, so much build up – a great location, a fascinating time period, a family haunted by a mystery – and none of it reached its potential.

As I mentioned, everything after the second half displeased me, when I started realizing just how predictable this book would be. There were a couple of sections that felt particularly repetitive. I even stopped at one point and thought, “Didn’t Thea JUST have these same thoughts five pages ago?” Once I realized the big drama in her family – a family, by the way, that never seemed particularly close, except geographically – was Thea losing her virginity to her cousin, the plot felt very thin. I should point out the drama wasn’t even that he was her cousin (incest in this location in this time period wasn’t that large of a deal to any of the characters), but that he was beneath her socially. The notoriously hard-to-please Michiko Kakutani called the book the “summer’s first romantic page turner,” but I didn’t find anything about Yonahlossee romantic.

This is largely because I’m peeved Thea’s “coming of age” revolves around her sexual relationships with two males – her cousin, a boy becoming a man, and the headmaster’s husband, a man who frequently seemed like a boy to me. I knew there would be some component of sexual awakening in the book, but did not expect it to take up the whole of the plot. And it seems to me a very antiquated notion that sex ushers in adulthood for a woman. After Thea has sex with Georgie for the first time, she thinks, “I remember feeling very adult, for the first time in my life.” This made me stop and put the book down to think about when I first felt like an adult (though there are days even now when I don’t feel mature enough to be considered an adult). Honestly, I think it was when I deposited my first paycheck, or opened my first bank account. Some action that asserted financial independence, and showed me I could sustain myself in the future. This novel is set during the Great Depression, and there aren’t a lot of options for girls making money – which Thea points out – and so DiSclafani could be making a point about the restrictions placed on girls and women in the 1930s, but I’m not sure the book is smart enough for that.

Recommendation?: I’m not sure who I would recommend this to. I don’t think there’s enough meat in it for a book club discussion, and it is too mature and explicit for a young adult audience. It doesn’t have enough historical context to satisfy the history-lover, and probably would only make a few romance-lovers happy. Horse-lovers might enjoy the details of riding, and people who want to be up-to-date on what books are getting good critical press may find it worth a read.

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