I absolutely loved Anton DiSclafani’s debut novel, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, so I’ve been making gimme-hands ever since I found out she had a second novel coming out this spring. And even though The After Party isn’t likely to stick in my mind the way her first book did, it’s still really dang good. In it, narrator Cece has a singular fixation in her life: her best friend since childhood, Joan, who is wild even by MTV’s Real World standards, let alone the standards of her actual world, which is oil-booming 1950s Houston. Cece spends almost all her time thinking about Joan, worrying about Joan, or cleaning up Joan’s messes. Even when she’s grown, with a husband and a baby, Cece’s life is more about Joan than anyone else, even herself or her own family.
Cece’s obsession, while unhealthy and maybe a bit creepy, is at least somewhat understandable—Joan is a fascinating character, elusive and enigmatic even while she’s the center of attention (and she’s always the center of attention). But Cece’s neediness occasionally drives Joan away, and because we’re limited to Cece’s perspective, Joan is always at a frustrating distance. An effective choice, if DiSclafani is trying to invoke in the reader Cece’s own feeling of never having quite as much of Joan as she wants, but decidedly less interesting than hearing Joan’s story from her own mouth.
This method of using a comparatively bland bystander character to narrate the adventures of the main attraction seems to be popular lately, and I can think of several books I’ve enjoyed that employ it (The Girls by Emma Cline and The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor come to mind, though there are others). In this case, though, I would rather have read about Joan without Cece as a lens. One of the aspects I loved most about The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls was Thea, the bold, sexy, risk-taking main character—a character not unlike Joan, in fact, now that I consider it. For my money, DiSclafani is at her best when she gives her most charismatic character the microphone.