“This highly anticipated coming-of-age novel . . . delivers the perfect sunny trifecta: summer camp drama, growing pains, and the enduring power of female friendships.”—Redbook
At what point does childhood end and adulthood begin? Mandy Berman’s evocative debut novel captures, through the lens of summer camp both the thrill and pain of growing up.
Rachel Rivkin and Fiona Larkin used to treasure their summers together as campers at Camp Marigold. Now, reunited as counselors after their first year of college, their relationship is more complicated. Rebellious Rachel, a street-smart city kid raised by a single mother, has been losing patience with her best friend’s insecurities; Fiona, the middle child of a not-so-perfect suburban family, envies Rachel’s popularity with their campers and fellow counselors. For the first time, the two friends start keeping secrets from each other. Through them, as well as from the perspectives of their fellow counselors, their campers, and their mothers, we witness the tensions of the turbulent summer build to a tragic event, which forces Rachel and Fiona to confront their pasts—and the adults they’re becoming.
A seductive blast of nostalgia, a striking portrait of adolescent longing, and a tribute to female friendship, Perennials will speak to everyone who still remembers that bittersweet moment when innocence is lost forever.
Praise for Perennials
“Berman is at her most insightful when exploring the awkward unfurling of female adolescence. . . . Perennials is a sharp meditation on the changing female body, and the ways in which such changes are often involuntary and unwanted. . . . [She] skillfully captures the details and rituals of camp.”—J. Courtney Sullivan, The New York Times Book Review
“Berman’s command of prose is astounding. The more you read, the more difficult it is to believe that this is a debut novel. . . . 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.”—Pop Dust
“Snappy and irresistible, Perennials takes readers back to summer camp, where her characters’ first friendships and treasons play out in sharp dialogue and playful, generous prose.”—Kristopher Jansma, author of Why We Came to the City
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Mandy Berman is a writer from Nyack, New York. Perennials is her debut novel. She holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University. She lives and writes in Brooklyn.
Read an Excerpt
Denise was supposed to drive Rachel to camp that morning, but she was hungover. Rachel had heard her come in late the night before, her heels clacking in the entryway of their apartment before she exhaled loudly and trod barefoot into the kitchen. Then came the slamming of cupboard doors and rustling through boxes; the crackling of plastic; the cereal tinkling into the bowl; the repetitive crunching. She’d had a date with a tax lawyer who took her for French food in the Village. Most of Denise’s dates didn’t leave the Upper West Side on the weekends, and neither did she.
Rachel imagined the night went something like this: They split a bottle of expensive wine. Denise tried not to drink it too fast, but they were done with it before finishing their entrées, and she was relieved when he suggested another. She went home with him but didn’t sleep there; she sobered up enough to remember she needed to take Rachel to Connecticut early the next morning.
When Rachel went out into the living room at seven, Denise’s mouth was wide open like a cartoon fish’s. Dark purple eye shadow was smeared over her closed eyelids. She hadn’t bothered to pull out the couch. People always said Rachel and Denise looked alike; often it was a pickup line from a guy—that they looked more like sisters than mother and daughter. But aside from the same dark, wavy hair, Rachel never saw the resemblance.
“Mom,” she whispered.
Denise swallowed, then sighed, like she was in the middle of a nice dream.
“Mom,” Rachel said again, stroking the top of her mother’s head. Denise groaned and put the pillow over her face.
On the ride there, with her Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee, Denise started to wake up. They sang Pat Benatar; Denise had one hand on the steering wheel, and the other dangled out the window, holding a cigarette. They didn’t need directions. This was Rachel’s fourth summer at camp, and they knew the route by heart now—a straight shot up the Taconic, a winding parkway that could be so unpredictable Rachel sometimes worried her mom wouldn’t make a turn in time and they’d end up smashed against a cement boulder on the side of the road.
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. In the months leading up to camp opening, she would think maybe the grass wouldn’t be as green. Maybe some building would be painted a different color. Maybe they’d fixed that one broken rail on the fence around the horse arena.
But none of that ever happened. Time didn’t touch Camp Marigold, and that was what was so perfect about it.
They pulled into the circle of platform tents in the girls’ Hemlock section, where the thirteen-year-olds stayed, and lugged Rachel’s trunk from the back of the rental car. Counselors were greeting parents, helping them carry trunks and shopping bags filled with magazines and snacks, and girls Rachel knew well, girls with whom she’d compared nipples in their tents and stolen ice cream from the dining hall in the middle of the night, were hugging each other, holding hands, and gleefully yelling her name.
Denise put her arm around Rachel. “Happy, baby?”
Fiona ran over and embraced Rachel. “I saved you a bunk!” she said. She led Rachel into tent three. Their bunks were always at the top, head-to-head—best for late-night whispers after lights-out.
Fiona Larkin, Rachel’s best friend at camp, was a nosy but brutally loyal girl from a big family in Westchester. It was Fiona’s fifth summer at Marigold. She had already unpacked her own things and was now helping Rachel to unpack hers, taking items out of her trunk and organizing her cubby in a way Rachel would never be able to maintain.
Fiona stood with one hand on her hip, a box of Tampax raised in the other, and a questioning expression on her face.
“What?” Rachel asked. “Isn’t it obvious?” She stood back and let Fiona appraise her. The changes were small, but there: slightly wider hips, and breasts in a real, underwire bra, size 34B.
“You need to tell me these things!” Fiona said.
“Sweetie”—Denise, who was tucking Rachel’s mosquito net into the bunk, was shaking her head at Fiona—“it’s nothing to be jealous about.”
A few months earlier, Rachel had been home alone, lying on the couch watching a movie and eating Chips Ahoy cookies. At a commercial she had gone to the bathroom and been shocked to see brown in her underwear. For a minute, she thought it had something to do with the cookies, like she had somehow gotten the chocolate on herself. But then she realized. No one ever mentioned it could be brown.
The next morning, Denise kissed her on the forehead. “I’m glad we got you those pads.”
“I used one of your tampons.”
“Really?” She cocked her head to the side.
Rachel shrugged. “It wasn’t that hard.”
“You shouldn’t be going into my things, Rachel.”
“The pad was so bulky.”
“Why didn’t you call me?” her mom asked.
“You were on a date.”
“You can interrupt for something like this.”
Denise turned around to put on some coffee. As she was reaching for the ground coffee in the cabinet above her head, she paused with her hand there and turned to Rachel again.
“Are you having sex?”
“It’s not impossible,” she said.
“There’s not even anyone I want to have sex with.”
“Want to? I don’t care if you want to or not. You’re thirteen fucking years old.”
“I didn’t mean it like that.”
“I don’t know how you figured out the tampon so easy.”
“There’s an instruction manual, Mom. I can read.”
“Don’t be smart.”
“You know you have to be careful about these things now.”
“I know what getting your period means.”
“Don’t be such a smartass, Rachel. I’m being serious.” She poured water into the coffeemaker. “And you might want to start watching what you eat. No more full boxes of Chips Ahoy in one sitting.”
Fiona and Rachel thought it was weird that some girls were new to sleepaway camp at this age, as if they had been afraid to be away from home before now. One of the new girls cried quietly at night as if no one could hear her. Another was a tomboy who just played sports all day. Their counselor was from Poland, and Rachel and Fiona made fun of her accent when she left for the staff lodge after lights-out.
Fiona was the one who had convinced Rachel to take horseback riding, and then Rachel had convinced her dad to pay the extra money for it. Her dad wasn’t around much anymore, but she knew she could still ask him for things. She knew at that age, though she didn’t have the words for it, that she was using him and that she was allowed to. That, because he was the one who wasn’t always there, she could ask for the things she wanted, and he would give them to her.
Riding was the first activity of the day, and Fiona and Rachel went down to the stables together after breakfast, walking arm in arm. Rachel got to ride only a few times throughout the year, when she was able to get her dad to take her out of the city, which wasn’t often, so while Fiona was going on about boys—“Matthew Dawson was staring at you today at flag raising, Rachel. Didn’t you see him?”—Rachel was thinking about Micah.
Most everyone else hated riding Micah. “His stubbornness is inconceivably annoying,” their riding teacher used to say, making it obvious that she wanted to trade him in for a younger, more obedient horse. It was all the better for Rachel. He and Rachel had a sort of understanding that she’d never thought she could have with an animal, and when she got back each summer, she swore he had missed her.
He was a dark brown dun with a gleaming coat. When she saw him again, she hugged his neck and trailed her fingers down his mane. He let out a neigh by blowing out his lips, and Rachel laughed.
She and Fiona saddled and mounted their horses. Rachel and Micah remembered each other’s rhythm as they cantered. She lifted off the saddle for one beat, stayed down for two. The air smelled like dry dirt and dandelions. She looked over at Fiona, whose face was clenched. She seemed nervous about what would happen next, her hands in tiny fists on the reins as if she would lose control of her horse if she let them slack even slightly.
Fiona rode a lot throughout the year; she lived just a short drive from a fancy stable. Rachel’s mom had taken Rachel on Metro-North the previous fall to sleep over at Fiona’s house in Larchmont, even though Rachel had insisted she could go alone. Fiona had a younger sister and an older brother, and they each had their own bedroom in their big house that looked the same as all the other big houses on the street. Inside there were freshly vacuumed carpets and a yellow Lab and parents who kissed each other on the cheek. There were brownies sitting warm and fresh on the counter like on those shows on Nick at Nite, and Fiona’s mom was wearing an apron and cutting up vegetables and boiling water in the open kitchen. She asked Denise if she wanted to stay for a cup of tea, but Denise said no, she really had to be going. With her eyeliner and her cigarette breath, she didn’t belong in that kitchen.
Reading Group Guide
1. One of the earliest scenes in the novel recounts Rachel getting her first period, and a conversation she has with her mother that explores her newfound responsibilities as a woman. Why do you think this anecdote is told so near the start of the book?
2. In many ways, Rachel and Fiona are opposites. A thirteen-year-old Rachel describes Fiona as “a nosy but brutally loyal girl” (p. 5), while Rachel keeps her night with Matthew a secret from her friend. Rachel is raised by her single mother, in New York City, while Fiona is from a wealthy nuclear family in Westchester. What do you make of their attraction to each other, despite their differences? What bonds them?
3. After Mark and Denise’s argument about the police station incident, Denise begins to cry, and then remembers advice from her mother: “Don’t you ever cry in front of a man. They’ll take your weakness and build themselves up with it” (p. 38). But Denise then admits that “she’d broken that oath a long time ago.” How do you think Denise’s belief that a woman shouldn’t show a man her weaknesses may have informed her relationship with Mark? How might it have informed the way she raised Rachel and what she has taught Rachel about relationships with men?
4. Marla is different from the rest of Helen’s friends, both in upbringing and personality. Helen reflects that this might be because Marla has had a less insular upbringing than Helen’s childhood friends: “Being sheltered from the bad things didn’t really bring you any more joy. It just made you dull” (p. 56). Do you think this is true? Why or why not?
5. Fiona is described as “uneasy all the time, squirming within herself” (p. 77). She is plagued with a sort of dissociation from her body, feeling like it does not belong to her. How does she compare her body to Rachel’s, Helen’s, and those of the other women in the book? Are her comparisons of herself to them purely physical, or is there something else she feels they have that she lacks?
6. After Sheera and Mikey get in trouble, she decides to tell Chad the truth about their going to the island. Why do you think she does this? Do you believe she made the right decision, considering Chad’s strong reaction?
7. After Helen finds Rachel and Yonatan in the shed, Rachel begs Helen not to tell her sister about it. Helen keeps her word. Do you think Helen should have told Fiona about finding Rachel and Yonatan in the shed? Why or why not?
8. On Visitors’ Day, Amy goes back for John’s phone to “check the thing that she never checked” (p. 155). Why do you think it was on this day, of all days, that she decided to confirm her suspicions about John’s cheating on her?
9. Mo is a virgin, though after Sheera falls off the horse and Micah is sentenced to death, Mo finally gains the courage to come on to Nell. What about the catastrophes of that day do you believe gives Mo this courage? Does being away from home have anything to do with it?
10. Nell thinks of herself as a “champion for confused girls” (p. 197). What does she mean by this? How does her relationship with Mo parallel the one Nell has with Sasha?
11. Jack resists Rachel’s advances twice, and then finally gives in to her on the third try. How do you explain Jack’s inner conflict in regard to sleeping with Rachel? What about his behavior later, during the scene in the woods? Why does he fire both Rachel and Chad?
12. Fiona is embarrassed to hear about Rachel’s firing secondhand. That night, she cries when her camper Billie sings “Eleanor Rigby” at bedtime, and later, Fiona wakes Billie up to have her sing it again. What do Fiona’s actions, and the song itself, say about her emotional state in that moment?
13. When Helen and Sarah sneak out and ride horses through the woods, Sarah confides in Helen that she and Danny Sheppard slept together. Afterward, “Helen couldn’t explain why, but she felt uneasy now about Danny, about the way he had told Sarah to keep things between them a secret” (p. 245). What is the significance of Sarah’s confession to Helen, especially in the context of this particular night?
14. The hospital chapter is told through the perspectives of Nell and Mo. Why might the author have decided to narrate this monumental scene from an outsider’s point of view?
15. Were you surprised by the book’s ending? Why or why not? What does each character take away from the final events of the book?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
You know that nostalgic feeling you get when looking at an old Polaroid photo? That’s how I felt while reading this book. Youth captured in a snapshot. As kids, Rachel and Fiona spent many wonderful summers at Camp Marigold. Eight glorious weeks of swimming, riding horses and making new friends. Things at home could change, but once they returned to camp, everything fell back into place and all was good with the world. In Perennials, Rachel and Fiona return to camp as counselors and with them is Fiona’s younger sister, Helen who is about to experience camp as they once did many years ago. Summer camp. Sigh. When I was a kid, I read a lot of books about summer camp and they really had me longing for that experience. It wasn’t until last summer that I actually attended camp (as a leader) and although I wasn’t there as a camper, it was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. In this novel, Berman beautifully captures all the angst and anxiety of pre-teens but she somehow manages to capture the doubts and worries of the young adult counselors as well. This book is summer, but it’s also life and love and friendship and all the not-so-pleasant stuff that comes with it. There’s a little more “action” between the campers and counselors than I would have liked to see. I am not a prude but since I work with teens and have teens of my own, I was a little sensitive to some parts of the story but at the same time I am far from naive. That said, anyone who is sensitive to language or sexual content may want to think twice before handing the book over to your teen. It’s not marketed as YA but from the cover you might think so. In the end, I thought it was pretty well done. The final pages were especially poignant and frankly had me all choked-up. Perennials is Berman’s first novel and I look forward to what she writes next.
3.5 stars They spent their whole summers at Camp Marigold, their whole summers! I can’t imagine this freedom, this opportunity to spend my childhood years with my summer friends without any parents around. It was usually the same set of kids and they’d pick right up where they left off last summer as if no time had separated them. They ‘d take time just to notice the physical differences that had occurred while they were apart, knowing that later they would take the time to talk about anything deep that needed to be exchanged. They had truly formed great friendships. With a whole summer ahead of them, counselors leading the way, the rules were stated but as the campers got older, the rules often got broken. Inside this novel, we follow Rachel and Fiona, these two girls fill out each other’s voids. Rachel was the risk taker, the outgoing one, the one who seemed to be out there. Fiona, she’s the one who lies in the shadows, she is the girl who individuals can count on for she seemed to have what others want. Meeting at Camp Marigold, we read about how their relationship grows and changes as each year passes. When they first arrived many years ago, they were campers and now many years later, they have assumed the roles as counselors and are now guiding and instructing other female campers. On the outside, Rachel and Fiona looked responsible to the young campers but I had to wonder myself, if Rachel and Fiona were mature enough for these young campers and could handle this responsibility? It was the freedom of the camp and the individualism of each of these young women that had me questioning their role. Their actions and behaviors were questionable at times. Only time would tell, if this role fit them. I loved the carefree atmosphere of the camp, the friendships of the individuals attending and the friendships that were promised next year. It brought back memories of my own experiences of summer camp. The anticipation of tomorrow’s activities, the promises of next year, the bond of being with your friends for a whole week without your parents and the stories. I enjoyed being away at Camp Marigold, the time walking through the woods, swimming, the late talks, the relationships that were formed and built upon and all the drama. It was good to be away, to experience camp again and to be reminded again of what camp was all about. There was a frustrating part about halfway through this novel, when I found myself whisked off into other individual’s stories, stories of secondary characters who suddenly got center stage. I didn’t really understand the need for these stories but nevertheless, the novel finally got back on track. I can’t say I was pleased with the ending but thinking about the novel, I can see why it ended that way, but it was not what I expected. Thank you NetGalley and Random House for providing me a copy of the novel. This is my own opinion of this novel.
A novel about summer camp may sound amateurish or YA but Perennials is anything but. In Mandy Berman's terrific debut novel you are introduced to a wide variety of characters that have a little bit of each one of us in them. We meet Rachel, Fiona, Denise, Helen, Sheera, Mo, Nelly and we remember our own camp friends or nostalgia. For someone who never went to camp we understand a little more about Camp Dynamics and how we grow. While I was never a huge fan of camp reading this story helped me understand all of the things at play for campers and the counselor. For the campers we find a group who is discovering themselves, they are discovering sexuality, their bodies are changing and some are not in that change. The unknown is exciting and thrilling to these new teens or about to be teens. With the older counselors they too are discovering adulthood and what it means to be an adult. Making good choices or learning from mistakes. Mandy has a terrific way of making each scene not only believable but also human. She has taken a great deal of time to get to know her characters and make them real. A must read! I received this book from Netgalley and decided to write an honest review.