This was sort of a difficult book to give stars to. There were parts that were wonderful and parts that were simply not. I will admit, I initially picked this up because of the word “camp” in the title. And though I was pretty much one hundred percent sure that the experiences of a character at 1930s riding camp would have little in common with my experiences at summer camp, anyone who has ever been to camp will know this is a singular experience you want to talk about. Constantly and rather irritatingly to your friends from home. So, camp was why I picked up this book, but not the reason I stayed.
Theodora “Thea” Atwell arrives at the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls after a family tragedy, sent away because of the part she played in it. There, high in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina, Thea meets girls of her own age for the first time. A world away from the isolated, country life she enjoyed with her parents and twin brother in Florida. But soon past mistakes start repeating themselves and the question is not whether she can return to her old life, but rather if she can keep her new one.
I read a lot of complaints about this book because it dealt with wealthy girls and that the protagonist’s ostensible camp punishment, going to a luxe camp with maids and daily riding lessons isn’t exactly much of a punishment. Valid, perhaps, but this was the South in the 30s. What exactly did these readers think would be the punishment of a Southern Belle? She was not being punished; really, she was being removed from a situation. This is what happens in the face of impropriety that you don’t want anyone else to know about. Real punishment begets some real questions from the neighbors. So is Thea’s fate bad? Certainly not. In fact, this is probably the best thing that ever happened to her. A sentiment she seems to reflect by the end of the book (not really a spoiler). Wealthy characters seem to have fallen out of favor lately, but I still find them entertaining. First world problems are still problems if they make you unhappy.
This book was certainly not without fault, however. As mentioned above, I went to camp. I was molded at camp and was spit out after two months every year with a coat of dirt on my skin (and caked in my feet) but with a much deeper understanding of the important things in life. Camp can’t be explained to people who did not go, because it’s just not something that can be understood. Stories are stories but what camp leaves you with is feeling. Cheesy but true. This was present in this book. A little. In my opinion the opportunity was lost. This is not a book about camp. So, please, if that is your only reason for picking up this novel, set it down again. It’s not for you. Instead this is a coming of age story about a girl who picks very bad bedfellows. Her internal struggle is recognizable, but many of her actions are not. There are two romances in this novel, both are inappropriate. The first was, perhaps, necessary, but the second was not. It added less than nothing to this story. In reminded me, a bit, of this film ‘Mona Lisa Smile’ starring Julia Roberts and Kirsten Dunst and took place in 1960s Wellesley College. I couldn’t help but think that movie would have been better without Julia Roberts. Girls can teach each other far more than a misguided authority figure that often bogs down the story. The adults in this novel did the same thing. Tidbits are necessary, of course, one can not live in a world without adults, but this would have fared much better had Thea’s journey been about the girls she met at Yonahlossee and not the adults she ignored them for.
Overall, I liked this book. I would give it three and a half stars, truly. Worth a read and half filled with great stuff. The other half, however, pulled down the narrative and I couldn’t throw it an extra half when I had to choose between three or four stars.