REVIEW | 'Perennials': Mandy Berman's stunning debut novel

LITERATURE | New author Mandy Berman tells a touching tale of childhood's end against the backdrop of an American Summer Camp

American Summer camp seems to have acquired a mythical status. At some indeterminate point in recent history, the logistical convenience of sending children away to supervised camp grounds transcended its evolution out of necessity, and became a cultural touchstone. Best friends, first kisses, emotional awakenings, early sexual encounters… for so many, this is what Summer camp means. In Perennials, the debut novel of author Mandy Berman, this version of camp is explored in intimate detail. Through the eyes of campers, counselors, parents and managers, the reader experiences the lives of two girls, as defined by their Summer Camp experience.

Rachel and Fiona grew up seeing each other every summer at Camp Marigold. Fiona is an awkward and anxietous child of modest suburban privilege, and Rachel is the more daring, city-raised daughter of a single-mother. Now they return to Marigold as counselors on the verge of their twenties. Their relationship has grown more complicated since their youth, and they have difficulty reconciling their childhood friendship with the college age women they are now. The lens of the story jumps from viewpoint to viewpoint, and slowly we see their childhood mythicizing of camp-life melting uncomfortably in to the imperfections and tragedies of adulthood.

Author Mandy Berman

Berman's command of prose is astounding. The more you read, the more difficult it is to believe that this is a debut novel. As she writes she appears to actively play with readers' expectations. Her work lulls you into a false sense of complacency with a conventional lexicon and linear sentence structure, only to then rip the carpet out from underneath with a phrase or paragraph so devastatingly shaped and stylized that it demands to be read again and again for its sheer emotional purity.

"Perennials is a novel that simultaneously basks in the sunshine of its own glorious nostalgia and fumbles in the boat-shed with its seamier underside"

What is perhaps most striking is her use of perspective. Berman writes the novel in the empathic third person, allowing us a look into the minds and lives of somewhere in the range of ten different characters. Each of them is so wonderfully detailed, realized, and full of the aches and pains of life that, on first meeting them, you spend several pages convinced that you have finally stumbled upon the author-insert character. Only then do you remember that you have felt this way about every person this book has introduced you to. It is quite astonishing.

Clearly borne of real-world camp experience, Perennials is a novel that simultaneously basks in the sunshine of its own glorious nostalgia and fumbles in the boat-shed with its seamier underside. It alternately fills you with a youthful joy of life, and a wistful, all-too-present melancholy. Whether you remember your camp days, or are a stranger to the experience, this book will leave you believing that you too were once a thirteen year-old girl at Camp Marigold. Charged with hope, longing, an unexpected sensuality, and a bruised tenderness, Perennials is a book you should most definitely put near the top of your reading list.

'Perennials' will be in stores June 6th

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