Today we review two notable debut novels featuring teen protagonists who are talented at the sports they love — riding and rowing. There are a surprising number of similarities between these books. Both take place in elite boarding schools, and feature teens who are new kids among long-time classmates, less wealthy outsiders struggling for the regard of their peers. Both novels deal with tragedy, and both authors generate suspense by cutting back and forth between the past and the present.
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is set in 1930, right before the Depression. The New York Times review calls it “this summer’s first romantic page turner,” and it has already earned starred reviews from Booklist, Library Journal and Kirkus. We’re adding a fourth right here! It was a featured title in the Penguin Debut Author program, titled First Flights, which includes a live online chat with the author. The transcript of the May 13th chat with Anton DiSclafani is available on the First Flights site.
Flat Water Tuesday is alternately narrated by Rob as an adult in his early 30s, and Rob as a teen. While you might think this a disadvantage for teen readers, I think this is what gives the novel its power. Understanding adult Rob’s life gives insight into teen Rob and, of course, visa-versa. The challenges that adult Rob faces are just as dramatic as those of his younger self. Rob may have learned a lot during his time on the rowing team at Fenton, but he still needs to learn how to participate fully in his own life as an adult. There is still a lot of growing up to do and responsibility to face, and I believe teen readers will find these insights engrossing.
The other really outstanding part of Flat Water Tuesday are the rowing scenes. Author Ron Irwin is a rower himself, and the level of detail he provides is fascinating, especially the sheer physical difficulty of training to compete.
Adult/High School–For 15-year-old Thea Atwell, finishing the summer of 1930 at an exclusive riding camp/boarding school in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina is a punishment rather than a privilege. Exiled following the tragic event her doctor father refers to as “all this mess,” Thea desperately misses her family, especially her sensitive twin brother, Sam. Raised in a large house on the family’s orange grove in rural Florida and homeschooled by her mother, she knows little about the intricacies of female friendship. Introverted and observant, she is, however, a passionate and skilled horsewoman. She soon takes her place among her peers, turning an eye toward the handsome, married headmaster. Formerly sheltered Thea begins to think about the world outside herself as she forms relationships beyond the bounds of family. The book’s setting provokes thoughts about class and the ephemeral nature of wealth and social standing. DiSclafani succeeds in making the horses characters in their own right, and equine lovers will revel in detailed descriptions of daily care and the excitement of riding. Told by an older Thea looking back on her coming-of-age in the midst of personal scandal, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is a book young adults will easily fall into and undoubtedly savor. DiSclafani has written a relatable protagonist with a rich inner life, a girl unapologetically exploring and coming to terms with her own sexuality with little regard for the possible consequences of her actions.–Paula J. Gallagher, Baltimore County Public Library, MD
Adult/High School–Robert Carrey is a 19-year-old postgraduate student, recruited from a small high school in upstate New York to row at the elite Fenton School. Rob’s working-class father convinces him that an extra year of high school is worth the chance of being invited to row for Harvard. Even though he is a solo champion, Rob is brought to Fenton to fill out their five-person team, the God Four, and help win the all-important Warwick Race. Rob immediately conflicts with Connor, the only Fenton rower who can match him, even as they begin a sort of friendship. Ruth is the God Four’s coxswain–she runs practices and calls the strokes during competition. Rob can’t help falling for her mixture of tough and vulnerable. Day in, day out training pitting the rowers against each other takes its toll, and from the beginning readers know that there’s tragedy to come. The novel alternates Rob’s months at Fenton with his present as a 30-something documentary filmmaker dividing his time between Cape Town and his girlfriend’s Manhattan loft. Back with Carolyn after a long work absence, their relationship on the rocks, Rob learns of the suicide of a former teammate. As a student at Fenton, Rob struggles to succeed within a team. As an adult he needs to change his solitary ways if he hopes to keep Carolyn in his life. This is more than a sports novel or a boarding school story, although it certainly illuminates the devastating consequences of competition. Teens will be drawn by the story’s honesty, suspense, and heart-stopping racing descriptions.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City