The quintessential modern summer camp novel, The Interestings begins in the summer of 1974 at Spirit-in-the-Woods, an arts-centric summer camp that caters to teenagers who see themselves as gifted, talented, and “interesting.” Wolitzer’s novel spans the course of decades as the characters learn how to maintain their relationships with each other while some meet success in their fields, and others, to their horror, grow up to become ordinary adults. The early scenes at Spirit-in-the-Woods are my favorite; they capture the essence and magic of being teenagers in the self-contained bubble of camp in a way I’d never seen before.
On a ski trip with my family when I was fifteen, I went to the slopes for exactly one day, then spent the rest of the week at the hotel’s indoor pool reading this book. Taking place over the course of many summers on Martha’s Vineyard—beginning when best friends Vix and Caitlin are eleven, and concluding twenty years later—Summer Sisters captures the complexities of female friendship with such acuity and grace that it’s no wonder Blume holds a place as one of our most eminent contemporary writers for children and young adults.
Keeping the Moon
This book, too, did not leave my hands during an adolescent family vacation. Fifteen-year-old Colie, formerly overweight and ridiculed at her school for being “easy,” is sent to live with her eccentric aunt for the summer in a sleepy beach town in North Carolina. She gets a job waitressing at a café in town and befriends two girls who are instrumental in helping Colie recognize her own potential and worth. Summer plays a crucial role in this superior young adult novel: Colie is able to start anew with people who are interested in getting to know her as a person, and not the baggage she carries with her. I read this right around the time I was hitting puberty, and I was so moved and affected by the nuance with which Dessen approaches the female body—our desires to modify it, and the confusing ways that society interprets our own physicality.
On a hot summer day in England in 1934, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis tells a lie out of jealousy and confusion that irrevocably changes the lives of everyone implicated—most essentially, her older sister and the man she loves. We all once, like Briony, had the same incomplete grasp of adulthood. I remember so explicitly that summer in which I witnessed but did not yet fully understand mature sexual motives; that summer when everything changed. Briony’s confusion and immaturity, however, lead to a mistake that she must reckon with for the rest of her life. Adult Briony’s perspective on her own tumultuous childhood—along with the unique and surprising narrative frame of the book—makes this novel one of my all-time favorites.
“Brownies” (from Drinking Coffee Elsewhere)
I’m cheating a bit for this last one, as “Brownies” is a short story, but I can’t leave out this summertime classic. During my first semester of graduate school, when I wrote the first short story that took place at Camp Marigold, a classmate led me to “Brownies,” describing it as a masterful narrative about race, adolescence, and girlhood though the lens of summer camp. She wasn’t wrong. “Brownies” is told from the perspective of a middle-school aged girl in an all-black Brownies troop at a Girl Scout camp; when an all-white troop arrives at the camp, tensions grow and conflict quickly ensues. Packer portrays social dynamics among adolescent girls so accurately that I’m immediately transported back to camp every time I read this.
I love the heat, even on days when most despise it. I love to be so hot that I can barely stand it anymore; I touch my shoulders and feel the heat emanating off of them, and then dip into a pool or lake or ocean. I love the cool relief that follows. I love my birthday, a week after the Fourth of July, still in the heyday of the season, before the bluesy dog days of August. Mostly, I love that in summer, all bets are off.
As an adolescent girl, summer was when real life ceased for a moment, and when I tried out the person I was thinking of becoming. At camp especially, there were so few consequences in comparison to school and “real life;” camp was sacred, and secret, a Vegas-esque bubble for pre-teens. What happened at camp stayed at camp. I explore this idea in my novel, Perennials; this platitude is true for many of the characters at Camp Marigold, who similarly see camp as a place where time stops, and summer after summer, nothing changes.
The following novels, too, utilize the ease and otherworldliness of summer to such great effect that the season is in many ways guides the stories and the decisions of its young female characters. Each one transports me back to that time in life when summer felt like the possibility of everything to come.
The quintessential summer read, Perennials: A Novel by Mandy Berman is available now: a sharp, poignant coming-of-age novel “skillfully captures the details and rituals of camp” (J. Courtney Sullivan, The New York Times Book Review), the magic of summer and the enduring power of female friendship. Perennials is Berman’s first novel.
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