Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Book Review: "Perennials" by Mandy Berman

I attended a sleep-away summer camp in the Catskills Mountains for 10 years, from the summer I was 10 until the summer I was 19. It's crazy to think that I started there nearly 40(!) years ago, and made some incredible friendships which have sustained through all this time, thanks in some part to social media.

Over the years I realized that only those people who had similar experiences truly "got" what camp meant—how spending every day for eight weeks with people created more intense relationships than with those people you saw 10 months a year back home; how you'd spend so much time during the fall and winter wishing you could be back in camp, thinking of all of the things you couldn't wait to do when summer rolled around again, and how it felt like you could just pick right back up where you left off the year before. Many of those years were some of the best times of my life, and it's crazy how vivid the memories of those days still are given there are days I can't remember where I put my wallet.

Needless to say, when I saw that Mandy Berman's debut novel, Perennials, touched on the camp experience, I jumped on it.

Rachel Rivkin and Fiona Larkin met as campers at Camp Marigold, the same camp where Fiona's parents met as children and fell in love. Even though Rachel and Fiona don't see each other much during the winter months, their friendship is as solid as ever, and they've already planned to stay in the same tent and be as inseparable as always. Yet the summer they turn 13 is a pivotal one, as they teeter on the brink between adolescence and self-proclaimed maturity, innocence and bravado, and their differences threaten to harm their friendship.

Rachel, the daughter of a single mother, knows she is fortunate to go to camp every summer, since they lack the financial resources Fiona's family has. Yet Rachel has something Fiona lacks—self-confidence in her looks and a willingness to test the limits of her budding sexuality, while Fiona has no interest in doing the same and resents Rachel both for moving forward without her and keeping secrets when she does. Even so, they know that their friendship is more important than anything else.

Six years later, Rachel and Fiona return to Camp Marigold as counselors. While they've maintained their friendship even though they attend separate colleges, they're looking forward to one last summer together before they need to become "adults" and pursue internships, jobs, etc. Yet it's not long after that they fall into the same behavior patterns—Rachel is rebellious, flirtatious, confident, and willing to take risks, while Fiona, caught in a cycle of low self-esteem, begins feeling the distance between her and Rachel growing.

During that last summer, things change for both of them, things that rock their lives and Camp Marigold. The book follows not only Rachel and Fiona, but Fiona's younger sister, Helen, now a camper, as well as some of the other counselors and camp staff. This is a book about the power and the burden of friendship, how sometimes our differences make us stronger friends while at other times they just ultimately tear us apart. It's also a book about how fast we want to become adults until we find ourselves in adult situations, and then we wish we could have our innocence back again.

I thought this was an interesting book, and there were definitely instances which I could so vividly picture in my head, as they reminded me of my own experience at camp. Berman is a very talented writer and she knows how to make you care about her characters, even when they may annoy you more than a little bit. (But chances are you know people just like them.)

I liked the first section of the book, which followed Rachel and Fiona as campers, but once the story moved six years later, I feel as if Berman got a little too ambitious and lost the focus and heart of her story. The book suddenly shifted to characters we had never met before, characters who seemed reasonably peripheral to the actual plot, and yet there was a great deal of time dedicated to them. They were interesting but it distracted from the real story (or at least what I wanted the real story to be). I also felt as if Rachel went a little too far, even though I could understand her motivations, and that made her a little less interesting.

I'll admit I was hoping this would provoke a little more nostalgia and generate a little less drama, but perhaps that was my fault. Still, this is a solid story about adolescent friendships and how they sometimes struggle as they move into adulthood, and I'd imagine that given the main characters are both female, it may resonate a bit more for women than it did me.

NetGalley and Random House provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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