Book Review: Perennials by Mandy Berman

Rachel always got the feeling when they pulled into camp that time hadn’t moved since the previous summer. Everything was exactly the same: the wooden Camp Marigold sign with the fading painted orange flowers; the smells of the horse manure from the barn and cut grass from the athletic fields.

Perennials opens with a younger Rachel and Fiona, two girls from vastly different lives brought together over the shared experience of camp. Here Rachel is able to forget about her day-to-day life: the struggles she faces with her single mom, Denise, with her string of broken relationships and the drama surrounding her paternity.

They drove back to camp with the windows open. Their relationship felt different in the country, all the stresses of city life left behind. There was no smog, no subways or sirens. Here it was just Denise and Rachel pared down, mother and daughter driving along a country road.

Fiona, on the other hand, lives in a large suburban home with her siblings and parents. She lives a sheltered life, though not without its own struggles, however, through Rachel she is reminded just how fortunate she is. The naivety born of her upbringing will plague her into adulthood- a resultant insecurity that stands in sharp contrast to Rachel’s brazen confidence.

Fast-forward 6 years and Rachel and Fiona return to Camp Marigold as counselors. They have completed their first year of college but find themselves desperate to relive the magic of summer camp- to escape the expectations and the pressures of early adulthood. While Rachel appears to have blossomed, Fiona is struggling to navigate the treacherous landscape of college life both emotionally and socially.

The drinks, the unlimited d-hall, the late-night munchies— they were all just ways to make it through the discomfort of being herself, which of course resulted in the inverse: Now there was just more of herself to hate.

The narratives of Rachel and Fiona provide a constancy to the story as it branches into separate narratives of other campers and staff where is reaches a greater depth by tackling often overlooked storylines. Perennials explores the themes of race and sexual orientation through the stories of one black camp goer and a pair of counselors- one a lesbian and the other curious and questioning. The inclusion of these narratives elevates the story and carves out a place of belonging that doesn’t always exist in coming-of-age tales.

— but something about the appearance of seamless diversity intrigued her, as if nature itself was some kind of great equalizer.

The themes of growth and loss are also explored through the tumultuous experience of adolescence and the ever-present worry and wonder about the changes from girl to woman. Helen, Fiona’s younger sister, carries this narrative through her concern over getting her period, experimenting with a group of friends on the fringe and shedding the constraints of her innocence. Helen’s youthful eagerness and uncertainty will resonate with many female readers as she voices the experiences many of us have lived.

It was greatest loss to heap on top of an already broken summer.

Things at Camp Marigold take a more serious turn when tragedy strikes not once but twice. When the magic of camp threatens to dissolve, Jack, the middle-aged head of the camp, is tasked with keeping it together. This is a stretch as he has let his own life unravel so fully. As he sees his age reflected by the youth of the counselors he lets temptation get the best of him and when he takes it a step too far his choices will leave a bitterness so raw it burns.

Perennials is a heartfelt summer tale that dives beneath the surface to pull forth the hidden experiences of adolescent girls. Berman succeeds in her effort to prove that these secret musings and heartbreaking struggles are a profoundly shared experience. Glittering with feminist undertones, Perennials celebrates all that it means to be a girl at camp- the yearning and the questioning and the sheer exhilaration of it all.

And so, camp: Maybe she could feel there, finally. Maybe she could cry there, be less selfish there. If any place could bring it out of her, that would be it.

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A review copy of this title was provided by Random House via Netgalley.

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