I received an advanced copy of this book from the Penguin Debut Authors program. This book has a lot of positive buzz, all completely justified. Kirkus (which I've always found to be the most critical and therefore most trustworthy review journal) gave it a starred review.
Bottom Line: Highly recommended. Should be picked up by all public libraries. Would be a good choice for book clubs. Reminds me a bit of The Secret Life of Bees. (Strong, female relationship centered Southern character driven drama.)
It might be the depression (1930), but wealthy 15 year-old Thea Atwell has been sheltered from that and many harsher other aspects of life in her extremely insular family. However after a family tragedy which Thea can't bear to think about or acknowledge her role in, she has been cast away from her parents and twin brother for the first time in her life.
Specifically they send her to an exclusive girls summer camp/finishing school in the Appalachian mountains. There, for the first time, she must learn to create friendships with those outside her family, and navigate the tricky waters of teenage girl social interactions. All while she denies and then comes to terms with her family situation.
Books like this are a very special type of crack to me. If you love books with A THING, a big unrevealed secret or past event that is hinted at and gradually revealed, you'll like this. The secret is not what I expected and reveals a great deal about the era, her family, and provides an interesting mirror into our own world. In other words, it is the best example of this type of book.
I was worried about this one because I don't like horses and much of this book is centered on the narrator's love of riding and horses. (I think I missed that part of the girl gene that likes horse books.) However while the horses and riding were expertly used to help portray character growth and as a window into the souls of the girls at school, it was never beat over our heads.
Characters and their growth are at the heart of this novel. For a large cast (and in a girls school none the less), I never got confused as to which girl was which. And more impressively, I never felt like any of the characters was a stock character/stereotype.
Setting and historical element was well developed. The effects of the depression, even upon the wealthy characters at the heart of the novel. It was subtly but wonderfully done to place and then hint at the irony of an enclave of wealth and exclusivity in the heart of crushingly poor Appalachia. A couple of times the author seems a bit prescient in her awareness of the lack of equality and education for women, but those rare and fleeting moments of high handedness are among the few blemishes of this otherwise extraordinary work of fiction.
Overall, I am highly recommending this book. I already passed my copy onto a friend and plan to continue to spread the word about it.