Anton DiSclafani is well aware that she’s written a coming of age novel. In fact, her main character, Thea, says as much in the book’s opening pages: “I came of age, as they say, at the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls.” It may seem as if DiSclafani is mocking the bildungsroman, lobbing a snide remark towards a much-loved genre. In fact, she is only tackling it in earnest – first by acknowledging its existence and then by probing its origins. Yes, characters change over time, as people do in life. Yes, characters are marked by formative experiences, the same way people can point to life-changing moments. But what makes a person (or character) act the way they do? Is it nature or nurture? Circumstance or lack of will power?
Thea is a “not right” girl. She has been kept isolated by her family, so that the only people she sees on a frequent basis are her parents, brother and male cousin. She is 15 at the book’s start, so that her burgeoning sexuality is a primary concern. But what of this burgeoning? Where can all these feelings, thoughts and desires go if not towards the one non-brother in her immediate radius – her cousin? What, in isolation, would seem a deviant, distorted behavior becomes, given these circumstances, the natural thing. Look how DiSclafani can do that – turn a behavior that would otherwise render the harshest judgment into something understood, even sympathetic.
Thea gets sent away to a horseback riding camp which, given her penchant for horses, doesn’t seem like much of a punishment. Except it is, to her. She misses her brother and can’t shake her feeling of displacement, the knowledge that she has shamed her family. Only she must shake these things to survive. Soon she is riding to the exclusion of all else – forgetting her past and just submerging herself in this newfound culture. It isn’t long, though, before she feels familiar impulses begin to surface – the want, the desire, for an illicit relationship. Unbelievably, Thea is at it again – this time with the school’s headmaster, who is 31 to her 16.
Initially, I found the dual narrative of two sexually inappropriate relationships dizzying, even improbable, but in retrospect, I see why DiSclafani did it: to create a pattern and then, on the basis of it, to ask a question: If a behavior repeats itself, can definitive conclusions be made about a person? Or is each situation to be picked apart and weighed? Has Thea internalized her family’s perception by becoming inherently wayward? Or is it only this time in her life, this season of unquenchable want, that is to blame? How much, in the end, are people responsible for their own downfall?
Unsurprisingly, this is a solemn, ponderous book – but because Disclafani writes so fearlessly about teenage sexuality it is also filled with flavor and daring. Pick this one up and see just how she accomplishes this juxtaposition.
Many thanks to Riverhead Books for my review copy!