“The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls” “The After Party”
Author: Anton DiSclafani Author: Anton DiSclafani
Publisher: Riverhead Books Publisher: Riverhead Books
Pages: 388 Pages: 384
Price: $27.95 (Hardcover) Price: $26.00 (Hardcover)
Anton DiSclafani may be the newest member of the Alabama literary community.
Raised in Florida, with an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis, Ms. DiSclafani joined the Auburn faculty last July, as teacher of fiction writing.
In 2014 she published her first novel, “The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls,” which spent some time on the NYT best seller list.
The novel opens in 1930, soon after the stock market crash.
Thea Atwell, a child of privilege in rural Ocala, Florida, is being raised on 1,000 acres by her artistic, elegant mother and her dad, a genial fellow and physician with a modest practice; the real family money is in citrus. Life is good until Thea does something her parents find unforgivable. The first line of the novel reads: “I was fifteen years old when my parents sent me away to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls.” The camp, located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, is “where important Southern men sent their daughters,” far, they hope, from all males. Thea believes she’s been banished for the summer; in fact, she is not to return home for a year.
She’s never visited, even when sick. What did she do to deserve this? DiSclafani builds her fictions around a secret, peeled back slowly like the proverbial layers of an onion. Thea’s sexual transgression is eventually revealed, and, high-spirited filly that she is, she commits some new ones while at Yonahlossee.
We learn a lot about riding camps, adolescent girls, and horses. Thea, a sensitive, alert child, scrutinizes the other girls in her cabin—Molly, Decca, Sissy, the pre-lesbian Mary Abbott—ranking them unerringly from alpha to omega. They wear camp uniforms, so cannot distinguish themselves in clothing, but Thea notices the little things: posture, jewelry, shoes, accent, hair, all the markers.
Almost all the characters are female, here and in her new novel, “The After Party,” and DiSclafani happily acknowledges that her readership is too. After all, two-thirds of all new novels are bought by mature women.
The narrator of “After Party,” Cece Buchanan, one of a group of rich young women, tells us, years after the fact, about events in the posh River Oaks section of Houston of 1957. It’s Gatsby, 30 years later, in Texas. “There wasn’t an old guard in Houston.” It‘s all oil money and it’s all new. The women drink and hang out at the exclusive Shamrock Hotel, an actual place, decorated by owner Glenn McCarthy in 63 shades of green, and the Petroleum Club where “the bathroom fixtures were all plated in twenty-four karat gold.” (The James Dean character in “Giant” was based on Glenn McCarthy, we’re told.)
As in “The Help,” the men are actually irrelevant. They are somewhere else: at work, in the field or in an office. The women, it seems, are free to have or be anything they like. But of course it isn’t so. Under great pressure, they all come out at 18, do not attend college, are married at 20, or 25 at the latest, to men a few years older. There is a great show of courting, but the young couples actually come to know their new spouses only superficially. The women have their first child in two years and the second two years after that, or tongues wag. Later, of course, the women may become restless in their marriages. The Junior League and The United Way lose their luster. A couple of times Cece remarks that a girlfriend’s husband is “a little light in his loafers.” She is grateful her husband, Ray, is standard issue.
It looks as if they have achieved the American Dream, but they are not happy. Materialistic, shallow, their lives are social and mostly without meaning. Cece’s feet ache but that “was the price you paid for beautiful shoes.” Ferragamos are mentioned. The young women compete for rank order, especially with their diamonds: “how many there were. Were they peanuts or walnuts strung together on a bracelet? A necklace? How far down did it dip between our breasts?”
“It was exhausting, remembering all the ways we measured each other.” All are wealthy but some of the women are prettier, some have better taste in dresses; some know which NY fashions would work in Houston; some just wear their clothes better. It is exhausting.
Cece, at 25, married for five years, with a small boy, Tommy Fitzgerald Buchanan, is more grounded than most but confesses: She has “a beautiful home filled with beautiful things, in a beautiful neighborhood.”“Did I care about a bigger house? A nicer car? More extravagant vacations? Of course I did.”
Cece has a thoroughly decent husband who loves her, but she endangers her marriage with an obsession/infatuation, perhaps sexual at some level, with a childhood friend, the irrepressible Joan, the alpha female, the Zelda of her crowd.
Joan dives from the highest cliffs, drinks more, uses drugs, stays up till dawn, is sexually adventurous with inappropriate men, and, without malice, really, creates “messes for other people, unthinkingly” to clean up.
“The After Party,” like DiSclafani’s earlier novel, is built around a terrible secret in Joan’s and Cece’s past, a taboo act committed together. Cece is forever indebted to Joan for keeping her secret; but Joan also has big secrets hidden from Cece.
As the plot unfolds, the deeds are revealed and, thank goodness, Cece grows up.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.