Set in 1930, at the cusp of the Great Depression, the narrative centers around Thea Atwell, a well-to-do young woman whose passionate personality sets off a series of events that end up irreparably damaging her family. It’s a coming of age novel, but also an astute study of womanhood, and what it meant to be the so-called “rich girl” in a patriarchal South, where young women were not masters of their own lives; instead, their fathers were their keepers. But these same fathers are now faced with losing their fortunes, and much less concerned about losing their daughters. After a tragic accident, Thea is sent to an equestrienne boarding school where she is met with a vastly different society than the sheltered one she has led up to this point. Money, beauty, and family names are the currency, there, and after struggling with both her guilt and homesickness, begins to recognize the power she can wield as a talented and attractive woman.
Thea struck me as a modern teen. She was, in many ways, “born” in the wrong decade. She harbors lusty ambitions, and strives to be her own master, which she succeeds in doing through horseback riding. But this isn’t enough—as her sexuality grows, her problems become numerous. Her own undiagnosed narcissism is the reader's telltale sign of her unreliability as narrator. She is written as a sympathetic character, but not so much that her first person narrative blinds the reader into utter faithfulness. We are able to distinguish her faults from her strengths. She is, after all, a naïve and spoiled child from an area of the world that is secluded (rural Florida). Her mother also has a hand in her seclusion—locking her children and husband away from a world that demands self-awareness from its participants. Her story is quite similar to that of the home-schooled child who has always been praised, who has always secretly nursed a sense of superiority that is based on the solidity of removal. The idea of Utopia is prevalent throughout—a self-made paradise is nice until the inevitability of life and loss of luck comes along to destroy it. There is no real paradise, and one cannot hide from the world forever, no matter how much money there is, no matter how ideal a family seems to be. It is not natural.
I was actually surprised by the amount of sexual scenes in this novel. I say sexual, because, there are a good many that merely illustrate the process of a young person’s introduction into the physical world. I wouldn’t call this book a YA novel, either. Though its central character is a young teen, the content of the novel is extremely mature. There is incest, an affair, and Thea’s own strong, wise voice that oftentimes reveals a far older soul. But this shrewd outlook she possesses is also countered with her innate innocence of the rest of the world, of what decisions can do to a good many people. This is in part due to her upbringing, of dismissing the rest of society, of being tragically self-obsessed.
I’m still up in the air about the ending of the novel. It seemed drawn out, but at the same time, far too summarized. There were parts that I believe should have not been explained. A classic case of over-explaining in such a way that the reader feels ripped off. The prose is concise with deep detail. There is also an ambitious amount of research in the novel that I can’t help but admire. But Thea, in a way, justifies her mistakes by throwing them off of her and onto a “series of events”. This brings up the unanswered question: are we responsible for ourselves, our actions, or are they just events that domino into possible tragedy?
If you like coming of age novels that touch on the psychology of its characters, whose own morals are situated somewhere in that murky-gray area between right and wrong, where morality is a decision and contingent upon a specific person’s views, you’ll like this novel. These characters are all flawed, but this didn’t stop me from sympathizing as well as disproving of some of their actions. Thea is not a heroine. She’s a strong-willed young woman who has minimal self-control when it comes to her sexuality. She is selfish, and has the tendency to ignore things that bother her. She is also an extremely insightful character when she wants to be, with a solid personality and adaptability that is helped by an unshakable sense of self, tinged with a girlish cruel streak. She is a survivor, a “wrong girl” as she puts it. But we’re all wrong, and we’re all tempted towards the darker things in life at times.
Reviewed by M.B. Sellers
Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
Publication date: 6/4/2013