The After Party

9781594633164_p0_v2_s192x300  At first, I thought I was on the posh set of the old television series Dallas with its rich spoiled young matrons prancing about the country club and gossiping, but Anton DiSclafani’s The After Party is set in Houston and the lives of two friends reveals more than garden party chitchat.

The story is set in the nineteen fifties, neatly using the stereotype of the woman’s role at home and in society to underline the structured lives of the two wealthy main characters – both named Joan.  Friends since their first day of school, Joan Fortier and Joan Cecelia (Cece) Buchanan grow up together in Houston’s debutante society.   Cece willingly gives up her first name and her independence to follow in the shadow of the more beautiful and daring Joan.

Just as she did in her first book, the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, DiSclafani simmers her tale for many pages before bringing the plot to a boil with the big reveal of a devastating secret.  The girls’ lives seem shallow and insulated as they meander through parties and bars, more concerned about the latest fashion than the news.  Chapters alternated between the lives of the young girls as they grow into teenagers and their lives as twenty-five year women in Houston society.  Some secrets are revealed – the cause of Cece’s mother’s death; others are tantalizingly dangled until the end.

Throughout the story, Cece, the narrator, assumes the role of protector and savior for her best friend Joan, obsessed with wanting to be with her, even after Cece is married and has her own child.  Cece becomes consumed with wanting to know everything Joan is about, yet she never really succeeds.   After a while, you will want to shake her and tell her to get her own life.  Joan, on the other hand, is the mystery – publicly the most popular girl, attracting the gossip columnists by her prominent place in society and also by her antics, and privately unhappy with her superficial life.  Her periodic disappearances may give a clue to her attitude, but the big reveal affecting her life is not until the end of the book.

Somewhere around the middle of the book, I got caught up in the characters’ lives and realized the substance of the plot was deeper than an historical commentary on big-haired Texans over sixty years ago.  The relationships were the key to understanding the times, not only from the ladies who met weekly over cocktails to the husbands who worked or inherited money in the oil industry, but also to the trusted servants – chauffeurs who saw everything but kept silent and housekeepers who raised the children.  

Family relationships are strained through the generations, especially mother and child.  Joan’s mother fits neatly into the controlling authority who tries to manage her daughter’s life – her public persona anyway – and magnanimously takes in Cece to live in the Fortier mansion after her mother dies.  Cece never has a close relationship to her mother, who dies when Cece is fifteen,  but inherits millions from her and spends it all on fashionable clothes.  But the most curious is Cece’s mothering of her preschool son, Tommy, who does not speak nor look anyone in the eye.  His tendency to autism is ignored by both parents as they concentrate on Joan instead.

After Joan reveals her secret, the books drags on for a few more chapters to tie up lose ends and neatly assign the women’s lives to their proper place in the universe – Joan finally free of the shackles of society, Cece firmly planted in it.  I wondered if the story would have had more impact if it had ended pages earlier, but, overall, the focus on friendship was an excellent vehicle to a time and place in history when money and superficiality reigned for some. And Ray’s summation may have targeted DeSclafani’s view of real intimacy – ” You can’t know someone who doesn’t want to be known.”

Related Review:   The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls

9781594486401_custom-553d89074bec5dc575e0e9f98f3dc0fdd950a14f-s2The suspense is delicious in Anton DiSclafani’s coming of age tale The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls.  Thea Atwell has been sent away from the family’s Florida orange groves to a girls’ boarding school in the Appalachian hills because of a scandal  that stays secret until the reader is hooked and well into the middle of the book – no spoilers here.

The story moves back and forth from fifteen year old Thea’s new life among a group of girls – the horsey set at an exclusive boarding school – and her old bucolic life with her twin brother Sam, her pony Sasi, and her poor relation, cousin Georgie.  As Thea tries to adjust to her new surroundings among more girls her age than she has ever seen (she’s been home-schooled by her father), DiSclafani teases the reader with flashbacks to a gentler time back on the farm – before teenage hormones took over her life.

DiSclafani sets the story just as the Great Depression begins to affect all those wealthy family with daughters in boarding schools.  As the economy worsens, so do the lives around Thea: her uncle loses his house to foreclosure in Miami; philanthropists stop donating to the boarding school; and some girls are forced back home because their parents no longer can pay the tuition.  The world of debutante dances and the money class is shaken.

Horses play a major role in Thea’s life; her daring and proficient skills place her in the advanced riding class.  At the end of the summer, she stays on; Thea’s parents do not want her to come back home.  Letters from home are scarce – alluding to the incident and its consequences.  Eventually, the secret is revealed, but Thea continues to attract trouble as DiSclafani carefully rounds out her main character as a strong-willed yet vulnerable target, who inadvertently succumbs to feelings while looking for love.

A mix of family secrets and illicit romance, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is not targeted to a younger audience – the sexually explicit scenes would raise the rating to R –  yet NPR’s Mary Pols notes:

“{this} painstakingly constructed ode to a young girl’s sexual awakening — {is} just ladylike enough to be more bodice unbuttoner than bodice ripper… perhaps one of the classier books a young teen would hide under her covers to read with a flashlight.”

A page-turner that kept me riveted…