In the year 1930, Thea Atwell has been banished to a remote boarding school in North Carolina. She’s scared and humiliated, but no one must know her “terrible secret.” Her gossipy new classmates can only guess what would bring a new student to their leafy finishing school mid-summer. (Trouble with a boy?) The headmistress seems to know, but even in private she can’t bring herself to mention it directly. She advises Thea to keep an eye out for “anything unusual, anything . . . bodily.” (Acne? Dandruff?!) Thea will only reveal that she “could not be forgiven.”
For all its overwrought mortification, there’s something delicious about Thea’s ever-escalating, unnameable shame. The nubile students prance around the truth in their leather boots, riding their stallions until the pages feel sweaty. And still Thea keeps teasing us with this burlesque dance of concealment: “I was a nasty girl, with nasty thoughts,” she claims.
But on the contrary, we see a serious, observant young woman. DiSclafani, who teaches creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis, may be under more pressure than Thea. One misstep and all this erotic tension could collapse into prurient melodrama. Fortunately, “The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls” is no one-trick phony. Even as Thea keeps wetting her lips to tell us the unspeakable truth, we’re lured into more complex and provocative aspects of her story.
Although the narrator recalls this troubled time of her life from many decades later, we experience these shocks and revelations in the cloister of her 15-year-old mind, “half girl, half woman.” We’re caught in the current of those momentous months of 1930 when she came of age. There’s nothing unpleasant about this pricey girls school, but until arriving here, Thea has led a life of almost unimaginable seclusion on her family’s “private utopia” in the Florida wilderness. “I had never been alone with so many girls,” she says. “I almost never saw other children.” Homeschooled by her father, she and her twin brother have lived their entire lives like characters on Prospero’s island. Learning how to make friends, how to behave around boys she’s not related to, how to interact with adults — all the social skills of a normal life compose a crash course for Thea.
And in the distance, we can hear the reverberations of another crash. Between the irrational exuberance of “The Great Gatsby” and the grinding starvation of “The Grapes of Wrath,” DiSclafani presents an eery transitional moment. In these early months, the Great Depression is still just a depression; surely, good times are just around the corner. At Yonahlossee, everything goes on as it always has: The maids draw the baths, and the girls practice their elocution lessons, but periodically a classmate vanishes amid rumors of a family fortune ruined.
What charges this finishing-school story is the clever way DiSclafani has structured the novel. As Thea struggles to find her place at Yonahlossee in “the nuances of hierarchy, the subtleties of position,” she repeatedly flashes back to the febrile weeks before her expulsion from home, where, as her mother used to insist, “Your family is your greatest friend.” There we see vignettes of a proud compound insulated from the outside world, like some larger version of her brother’s carefully maintained terrarium. Somehow, her self-satisfied parents never imagined that anything could infiltrate the clammy atmosphere of their paradise — as though adolescent hormones could be controlled and tended as expertly as the family’s vast orange groves.
This, ultimately, is the novel’s most daring aspect: its winding exploration of adolescent sexuality. (No, Thea doesn’t sleep with her brother — keep guessing.) At Yonahlossee, DiSclafani re-creates the spun-glass fantasy of decorum, complete with corsets and lessons in lady behavior. “We understood that desire was a dangerous thing that needed to be carefully handled,” Thea says, “like a mother’s antique perfume bottle.” There’s wry wit in that simile, but when the wild horses of desire gallop through this novel, they prove to be extraordinarily dangerous.
From one angle — say, above the neck — “The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls” seems like the most old-fashioned, counterrevolutionary kind a novel. Despite some explicitly lubricated scenes, it’s downright Victorian in its insistence that when a young woman strays outside the bounds of sexual propriety, she ruins herself and those around her. But DiSclafani is a crafty mistress of those pious conventions. Her heroine must confront the old harlot-or-saint choice, but she won’t ultimately accept either role. Here is a young woman coming to understand the varieties of sexual experience — from abuse to delight — without renouncing her desire. “There was always this,” Thea confesses, “the hard kernel of want in my throat. I could not push it away. I did not want to.”
That sounds subversive even today — that a young woman can luxuriate in sexual pleasure, sow destruction, acknowledge the pain of her actions and still conclude that she’s ultimately worth it. Watch out: Men are allowed complicated regrets about moral transgressions, but women rarely get such a pass. Sensing that harsh judgment from home and school and world, Thea concedes, “I’m not a right girl.” But she’s fearless, and she’s riding to win.
Charles is the fiction editor of The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.