In conceiving her first, impressive yet flawed novel, 30-year-old Anton DiSclafani seems to have followed the standard advice offered to newbie authors to "Write what you know."
DiSclafani's protagonist, 15-year-old Thea Atwell, is a teenage equestrian who grew up in Florida; DiSclafani was, too. As a teen in northern Florida, where half of the novel takes place, DiSclafani apprenticed herself to horse trainers in exchange for riding lessons, and went on to compete in national horse shows.
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The other half of the novel takes place during the 1930s at the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, to which Thea is banished following a mysterious tragedy at home. Between 1922 and 1985, Yonahlossee was a real boarding school where Southern debutantes spent summers riding and grooming horses, and being groomed to marry wealthy men. DiSclafani's family had a vacation cabin in rural North Carolina, not far from Yonahlossee.
Consequently, both landscapes in which the book's alternating scenes are set are rich with known detail. "There wouldn't be as much to be wary of here, at least concerning the natural world," Thea reflects upon her arrival at Yonahlossee. "Winter came every year and weeded the animals, the plants. In Florida nothing died, nothing retreated."
Raised on a citrus farm where she and her twin brother, Sam, were home-schooled and isolated, Thea is stunned by nearly everything at Yonahlossee, and miserably homesick. So her ability to make thoughtful, mature sociological observations challenges her character's believability.
"Yonahlossee was where important Southern men sent their daughters," Thea reports. "It must have provided a certain comfort to these men, locked away as it was in the mountains; nobody could reach their daughters here. … The South was still a land unto itself, in some ways it was a land that time had forgotten."
Eventually, Thea finds friendship at Yonahlossee, and forbidden sex, and shame — all elements of the inciting incident that caused her to be sent away in the first place. This mirroring is a device that might have succeeded if DiSclafani had used it to lend depth to Thea's character development; instead the reader is asked to believe what Thea seems to think: that bad things keep happening to her at the hands (and other body parts) of bad people. Unfortunately, seeing oneself as powerless and blameless are not winning traits for a novel's protagonist.
Something DiSclafani couldn't have known before she wrote this book was that the fame-and-fortune fantasy of every first-time author would come true for her. DiSclafani finished the manuscript, and got herself a William Morris agent and, within days, a seven-figure book advance.
"Anton's book hits the sweet spot that publishers are constantly looking for," her agent told the Kansas City Star. "It's a very literary, review-worthy piece of writing with mainstream potential and accessibility."
This assessment is both the good news and the bad news about "The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls." In today's publishing environment, sales are king, and writing an "accessible, mainstream" book can mean reducing characters and plot to middling common denominators — a safer bet for publishers, but often an unenlightening experience for readers. It is precisely the "accessibility" of DiSclafani's first effort, combined with an excitingly promising talent, that makes the novel an engaging, suspenseful read — we don't learn what caused Thea's banishment until the halfway mark, and the question of its impact on her adulthood weaves a tightly honed tension throughout the remainder of the narrative.
On the other hand, DiSclafani's well-crafted but plain-spoken prose, verging-on-predictable plot, and verging-on-unbelievable characters might be more satisfying if they were a bit less "accessible" and a bit more subtly drawn.
The acclaimed fiction writer Nathan Englander called "Write what you know" "one of the best and most misunderstood pieces of advice, ever. It paralyzes aspiring authors into thinking that authenticity in fiction means thinly veiled autobiography."
There's much to enjoy here: clear, concise writing, lushly drawn settings, compelling choices of time and place. The talent in evidence in DiSclafani's first effort gives us reason to hope that in her next novel, she'll write what she knows with even greater depth and complexity — an outcome that seems likely because, as we all do, she'll know more as time goes by.
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls
By Anton DiSclafani, Riverhead, 400 pages, $27.95