Perennials // Mandy Berman. Is there a better way to welcome summer than with a debut novel about summer camp? I don’t think so.
I never went to summer camp, but I always, always wanted to, so perhaps a bit of my appreciation of Mandy Berman’s Perennials is rooted in envy. Regardless, it’s good.
Rachel and Fiona are campers—and later camp counselors—at Camp Marigold. They come from vastly different backgrounds but are best camp friends.
Told from multiple perspectives over the course of multiple summers, resembling linked short stories more than a novel, Fiona’s and especially Rachel’s stories are fleshed out in this coming-of-age novel. It’s heartfelt and melancholy, awkward and bittersweet. It’s not about action-packed summer hijinks, but rather a meditation on the benefits and burdens of friendship.
Berman is a talented writer, and I look forward to seeing what she writes next. In the meantime, Perennials is the perfect literary kickoff to summer.
The Summer is Ended and We Are Not Yet Saved // Joey Comeau.
As I mentioned, I’ve always wanted to go to summer camp, but – and call me picky if you will – I want to go to a happy summer camp. That’s all eleven year old Martin wants too. He’s going to learn archery, go swimming, and make new friends. Maybe he’ll even meet a girl – nothing too serious, it is bible camp after all. He never really intended to go to camp, but when his mother needs to go out town for several weeks for a job – she’s a horror movie make-up artist – he’s willing to take one for the team. It may even be…fun.
But that’s because no one showed him the cover of this book.
That’s right. Martin’s bible camp is a horror movie. He just doesn’t know it yet, but he’ll find out soon enough. The Summer is Ended and We Are Not Yet Saved by Joey Comeau is a solid, charming take on the camp slasher film subgenre, in book form. This novel is the reworking of Comeau’s novella Bible Camp Bloodbath. It’s still a rather slim novel, but it’s fitting. Having never done it myself, it seems like it would be tough to write a horror novel. After all, it’s not an easy task to make (most) people want to read about decapitation, scalping, and blood spatter. It’s even harder to imbue such a novel with a sense of family, nostalgia, and humor.
The characters are exactly who they are supposed to be. There’s naïve Martin who understands how horror movies are supposed to work, the unstable, but loving mother, clueless (but horny) camp counselors, a sadistic, yet seemingly affable head priest, and hordes of know it all campers. The killer is exactly who you think it is, the over the top killings happen as you might imagine, and there’s blood – lots of it. Yet it works. Comeau has created a novel that’s thematically equal parts coming of age story and campy ‘80s slasher movie. If you know this going in, and the idea sounds appealing, you’ll like this odd little novel. If not, skip this one, the sort of gleeful mayhem found in this book is not for everyone.
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls // Anton DiSclafani. If the genre ‘provocative summer camp literature’ existed, Anton DiSclafani’s debut novel ‘The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls’* would be the poster child for it.
In 1930, she simply does not fit in, but she soon learns the social hierarchy of the camp. The chapters alternate between Thea’s idyllic life in Florida and her new life in North Carolina. Each chapter reveals a little bit more of the event that changed Thea’s life. It quickly becomes clear that my obvious assumption was right – Thea had been involved with a boy, intimately. In her new life, Thea is just as helpless as she was with her family, simply because she is female. She quickly learns that the only power she holds is her sexuality and this realization will have repercussions for the rest of her life.
While this coming of age tale is not perfect, it’s as lush, evocative, and yes, provocative as the storyline sounds. Thea Atwell is a young girl learning what her body is capable of – love, lust, desire, control – at the same time that women are encouraged to suppress such urges. It is no wonder she feels like a ‘wrong girl’. I think this is a sentiment that most teenage girls can relate to at one time or another. While this novel is not written for or marketed to young adults, I would’ve loved it as a teenager. The sexual undertones and innuendos leap of the page (many having to do with horseback riding). However it’s the mysterious, near-southern-Gothic handling of the revelation that keep the pages turning.
The Interestings // Meg Wolitzer. Full disclosure, I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s the number one recommendation I get when I say summer camp book. So it doesn’t have my official stamp of approval, but it has everyone else’s!
“The Interestings explores the meaning of talent; the nature of envy; the roles of class, art, money, and power; and how all of it can shift and tilt precipitously over the course of a friendship and a life.
The summer that Nixon resigns, six teenagers at a summer camp for the arts become inseparable. Decades later the bond remains powerful, but so much else has changed. In The Interestings, Wolitzer follows these characters from the height of youth through middle age, as their talents, fortunes, and degrees of satisfaction diverge.”
Say You Still Love Me // K. A. Turner. Piper Calloway is privileged, and she knows it. So when she has to spend her summer working at a “rustic” summer camp, she’s not exactly excited, but she appreciates what her parents are trying to do. Camp Wawa introduces her to friendship, first love, and tragedy. From her bond with troubled Kyle, to her friendship with Ashley, the summer is one that proves pivotal. Turner uses the duel timeline to her advantage, giving the reader hardworking, single adult Piper, and naive, privileged young Piper, connecting Piper A to Piper B in a nostalgic, coming of age manner. You’ll relive all your firsts and wish you’d been to summer camp yourself. Say You Still Love Me is a cute second chance love story, and if you’re a sucker for summer camps the way I am, I’d recommend it.
The Optimistic Decade // Heather Abel. Heather Abel’s The Optimistic Decade is a memorable coming of age story set just before the Gulf War. David, lonesome and mediocre in his “real life,” comes out of his shell only at summer camp. Rebecca, his childhood friend, struggles with the fact the no one cares, not really, as her parents ship her off to be a counselor at some weird camp. And Caleb, the owner of the isolated summer camp, is both insecure and egocentric. Their lives converge during one hot summer spent in the mountains of Colorado.
I always love a good novel set in my home state and Abel does a fantastic job of describing the hot, dry Colorado summers. She also nails the intricacies of teenagers (at summer camp, and everywhere else), the need to be liked balanced with the desire to not give a fuck. Her prose is compelling, her characters can be both sympathetic and abrasive, and her depiction of the fraught inner monologue of young adults – trying to differentiate the person they are from the person they were raised to be – is awkward perfection. Overall, The Optimistic Decade is a wonderful debut novel. A must read is you love the ‘80s, summer camp, and the doomed confidence of youth.
Fun Camp // Gabe Durham. It’s the odd duck on the list, but it’s pretty fun. I read it because of this review.
Image found here.