Mandy Berman comes to Ohio University as a visiting English professor, bringing along her experience as a retired camp counselor and an accomplished author.
Berman’s well-acclaimed debut book Perennials was named Best Summer Book in 2017 by numerous media outlets, including Elle and Vanity Fair.
Perennials follows the lives of Rachel Rivkin and Fiona Larkin, two childhood friends who return as young women to the summer camp they once loved. The story guides readers through the differences between the girls now as camp counselors, the secrets they keep from each other and the many other turbulent events that test their friendship and their will to grow up.
Berman struggled to come up with a title for her debut novel, but she eventually landed on the name Perennials basing it off of the routines of summer camp and Rachel and Fiona’s fading friendship.
“There's a sort of extended metaphor about annual versus perennial flowers and how perennial flowers come back every year whereas annual flowers die after one year,” Berman said. “So it is a bit of a foreshadow to the ending and it also speaks to the routine of camp and the people that come back year after year and how they end up returning to their same patterns and social groups every summer.”
As a camp attendee and counselor herself, Berman drew inspiration from previous experience. She attended camp for five years, four years of which she was a camper and one year as a counselor. Berman sparked the idea for the novel when she revisited the camp years later.
“I saw the camp totally covered in snow and it brought all these memories and emotions for me and that was right about the time I was going to grad school for my MFA,” Berman said.
Patrick O’Keeffe, associate professor of English, has been teaching his Introduction to Fiction and Non-Fiction class the well-acclaimed book. O’Keeffe chose Perennials for the class because he felt the novel really spoke to the time in a very generational way.
“I think the way it deals with friendships, love, parenting even, all comes together in this book in very interesting ways,” O’Keeffe said. “I think it is a really brave and interesting book. I think it presents life in a very honest and interesting way.”
O’Keeffe hopes his students take away more from the book than just a reading assignment.
“I want them to appreciate on some level the skill of what the writer is doing, what it means to read a book like this in our time, a book that has been published in our time that deals with these issues,” O’Keeffe said. “ I think reading is very individual and very personal, but also it is wonderful to discuss and experience; reading is an experience.
To Berman, one thing that really stands out in her novel is the strong female focus in the story. Rachel and Fiona became friends during puberty, a transformative time in young girls’ bodies. Now that they’ve grown up, they experience more than just body transformation, but the mental challenges of being a woman.
“I really wanted young women, in particular, to feel that they were represented in this book, and for their various struggles and insecurities to be spoken about in some way,” Berman said. “I wanted to write a number of women characters that are different from each other and some of whom may be unlikeable and to show that there’s no one correct way to be a young woman.”
Autum Meyers, a freshman studying English, who attends Mr. O’Keeffe’s class, also noticed the distinct and various characters in the story.
"I like how it was from tons of different perspectives,” Meyers said. “I never really read anything like that before that wasn’t just two different people, it was from a lot of people.”
Berman came to teach at OU because of both the English department and the Ph.D. program in creative writing, which really appealed to her. As a new professor, she hopes to teach her students the importance of specificities and rendering characters that feel human and feel real with all their flaws.
“There’s no rush in terms of turning out a novel and you need life experience in order to produce a work of art that is meaningful and resident,” Berman said. “I think writing a novel takes life experience.”