books and reading · reviews

Book Review: Perennials by Mandy Berman

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Rachel and Fiona cemented their friendship in summers spent at Camp Marigold, a sleepaway camp in the Berkshires. Now reunited as counselors after their first year at college, the two find that their relationship has fundamentally changed. Over the course of the summer, a series of events and tragedies lead them into adulthood and force them to examine their closeness.

 

What’s most interesting about Mandy Berman’s debut novel is that while it purports to be about the complicated friendship between these two young women, it never really settles down to actually do that. Instead, after focusing its first two chapters on Rachel and Fiona, the book skips ahead to the summer they’re camp counselors and skips around to rest on the perspective of several campers, counselors, and even the camp’s lonely, divorced director.

The result isn’t executed perfectly. Because the reader never spends too much time with any one character, it’s impossible to ever get a sense for any of the book’s individuals. The only exception to this is Rachel, who readers get a sense of partially because everyone else is so obsessed with her. But despite the book’s twisty turns and tragedies, there isn’t much of a connection with any of the characters to really care.

That doesn’t mean the book isn’t compelling. It is, and Berman is an author to watch. She’s particularly gifted at talking about the awkwardness and complicated nature of female adolescence, and it is in these moments that she really shines. Details about both Rachel and Fiona’s mothers are particularly well done, and hints at the idea that girls become their mothers are fascinating (and true).

Berman is also good at building a sense of place. The details about summer camp are vivid and fascinating. The minutiae of every day, the intense bonding that occurs when people are crushed together in relative isolation–all of this is beautifully built. I enjoyed the hell out of this novel–I just wanted deeper characterization.

Recommended.

Perennials by Mandy Berman. Random House: 2017. Library copy.

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