display | more...

"Perennials" is a 2017 novel by Mandy Berman, a young writer from the New York City area. It concerns the lives of young women going to a horse camp somewhere in Connecticut. This is an example of literary fiction, and not just literary fiction, but specifically literary fiction about the upper middle-class in New England, which I have addressed previously.

The book describes two summers at a riding summer camp, one in 2000, when the two main protagonists are 13, and a second in 2006, when they are 19 and in college. One of the girls, Rachel, is the product of an affair and is raised by her single mother, while her father mostly makes a financial contribution but has minimal input into her life. Her friend, Fiona, comes from a more traditional background. Perhaps due to this, the two have a dynamic where Rachel has more risky behavior, while Fiona is more responsible. As I observed almost twenty years ago, this book's basic premise is that women have two basic modes: manipulative party girl or weepy martyr. And at this point I am done being objective about this book.

This book is bad. It didn't start out being bad. It started being out pretty engaging because the basic character dynamics were treated well enough. Then, as I got further into the book, I realized that the author had nothing new to say about the harmful social dynamics of seemingly happy middle class life in Connecticut, because the subject has already been covered in some detail. Neither did she have much new to say about the pressures that young women face in a world of double standards. So at a certain point of the book I started losing interest. In fact, this was much the same trajectory as Elegance of the Hedgehog, including killing off a character at the end. Which is the point at which I said "What the fuck?". In the last twenty pages of the book, Fiona's little sister, Helen, dies suddenly of an unknown congenital heart condition. Since this happens right after she learns her BFFsy has had sex, it is easy to see this as a form of Victorian Novel Disease, where the angelic little girl dies because she is too perfect of a cinnamon roll for this evil world. And in case the conclusion was too vague, the author lays it out in the final passage of the book:

All the girls Helen loved and hated would not be formative in the development of her adult self... She would not be threatened by women or seek to defy them. In her adult siblings' homes, and those of her aging, divorced parent, Helen would remain suspended in the same picture: ... Hipless, flat chested, some time before she would have got her first period... She was perfect. She had left perfect...Though no one admitted it...They all thanked God she was a late bloomer.

So this book, published in the year 2017, ends with the conclusion that its better for girls to die as pure blonde haired angels rather than go through puberty and have to deal with growing up. And the blonde thing doesn't seem to be a coincidence. Other than one minor minority character, all of the characters in this book are white and upper-middle class. And while this book criticizes that society, it also doesn't present a single alternative to it, other than dying young. "Rural" Connecticut is the furthest the characters, and seemingly the author, can imagine going, socially or geographically. That there is any other way to live that might be more peaceful and fulfilling isn't really presented. Just the hypocrisy and loneliness of upper-middle class New England life (which, btw, in case I hadn't pointed out, people have been writing about for a while).

So sorry for this non-linear and non-objective review, but Why? An author can write anything they want. The author of this book has a degree in writing from Columbia University, and yet in 2017, she chooses to write this. Why? I can understand wanting to address things realistically, but by 2017, when the book was written, and at least by 2000 or 2006, when it was set, there was options or at least awareness available. And at least the knowledge that cultures and societies outside of stuffy Northeast middle-class life. And yet the author chose to write about characters that were militantly unaware of their surroundings. Why?

Why?

NB: can anyone who read this whole thing send me a message where they assure me that, having gone to the effort of reading this serious business literary fiction, I am entitled to fill you in on all my favorite issues of Thor? Kthxbai.