This is one of those books that I quite enjoyed but did not love. I'd been looking forward to it and it delivered: the writing is skillful and evocative, the characters are interesting and there's a simmering tension throughout that kept me turning pages.
The book begins with 15-year-old Thea Atwell's arrival at the eponymous camp, which doubles as a year-round boarding school. We learn immediately that Thea's parents have sent her to Yonahlossee due to some sort of bad behavior at home, and short chapters building up to that event are interwoven with her life at the camp. Looking back, this isn't an action-packed sort of book--Thea makes friends, has sexual encounters, rides horses--but it's one that kept my attention throughout, with a combination of skillful pacing, secrets doled out bit by bit, and a persistent sense of complications simmering beneath the surface. The Depression is just beginning when Thea arrives at Yonahlossee in 1930, and provides an apt metaphor for the grown-up problems the privileged girls must learn to face.
Told in the first person, this is very much Thea's story, and she's a complex character although not always a nice one; it's easy to sympathize with her and get caught up in her story. Most of the other characters are also vivid, and while we don't get to know all of them very well, I believed in them and came away with the sense that there is more to them than we can see through Thea's eyes. The biggest exception is the headmaster, who seemed less than fully fleshed out. But I admire DiSclafani's ability to write convincingly about the society of girls at the school, and without resorting to common stereotypes like the bullying rival: the girls we get to know all feel like individuals and their relationships and group dynamics ring true.
The writing is also good: atmospheric and sometimes evocative, providing a great sense of place both in the scenes set at Yonahlossee in the Appalachian Mountains, and the ones set in Thea's home in Florida. There's also a strong sense of the cultural context; although the story is set less than a century ago and not so far from where I live, it's in many ways a foreign place. Thea's voice is believable, although for a story meant to be told by an older character looking back on her life, we don't hear much about what she thinks of the events in hindsight. In particular, there's a surprising lack of awareness of the bad choices made by virtually all the adults in her life, but perhaps just because readers are meant to come to our own conclusions.
A few words on the sex, which has generated mixed reactions. Thea's sexual awakening is an important part of the book, and there's an innocence-vs-transgression dynamic that runs through these scenes; she's caught up in the eroticism of it, while it's left to readers to realize how inappropriate the people she's picked really are. Ultimately the sex scenes are about the physical--if you're looking for romance, you'll be disappointed--so they're rather explicit, although not unusually so by the standards of adult fiction. In sex as in other areas of her life, Thea is an active character who goes after what she wants, which keeps her story interesting although she makes some bad decisions.
Overall, an enjoyable and well-written book that would make worthwhile summer reading.... or whatever season you want, really. (Far be it from me to tell you when to read the book.) I don’t think I’ll be adding it to my favorites list, but I will be interested to see what this author does next.