The Brit­tanys

  • Review
By – July 5, 2021

It’s 2004. Our nar­ra­tor, four­teen-year-old Brit­tany, is a fresh­man at a South Flori­da prep school. She loves Juicy Cou­ture, the mall, Eng­lish class, and the idea of grow­ing up. She’s boy-crazy and proud of it. Most of all, she loves her long­time best friend, Brit­tany Jensen. They’re two of the five Brit­tanys in their class.

Rather than focus on all the Brit­tanys, the nov­el cen­ters around our nar­ra­tor and Jensen (all the oth­er Brit­tanys are referred to by their last names). Their friend­ship, like the nov­el itself, is lov­ing and fun. It’s a joy to read their play­ful ban­ter and sto­ries of their some­times mis­guid­ed adven­tures in DIY hair dye­ing and ear pierc­ing. Their insight into each oth­er reveals itself almost instant­ly; one can tell the oth­er exact­ly why she’s doing some­thing and usu­al­ly be right. Since ele­men­tary school, they’ve known that if they look at each oth­er and con­cen­trate hard, they can make mag­i­cal things hap­pen, like find­ing someone’s lost purse. Their friend­ship is one of sleep­overs, silli­ness, and lots of desserts; it has a sweet inno­cence that reminds us of how, in those strange teenage years, we’re both bud­ding adults and awk­ward, over­sized children.

The ten­sion aris­es when Brit­tany and Jensen mature at dif­fer­ent rates. Jensen isn’t yet too inter­est­ed in boys, while Brit­tany can’t wait to lose her vir­gin­i­ty, or so she thinks. Her escapades with boys are cringe-wor­thy, enter­tain­ing, and (most­ly) inno­cent. As amus­ing as they are, Jensen doesn’t want to hear about them. Though Brit­tany knows Jensen’s strug­gles with her par­ents so well they’re prac­ti­cal­ly her own, she can’t under­stand why her friend doesn’t crave romance and sex like she does.

Brit­tany and Jensen’s grow­ing dis­tance cre­ates an oppor­tu­ni­ty for the oth­er Brit­tanys to come into focus. How­ev­er, they appear in brief, if delight­ful and some­times poignant, vignettes with­out the sharp psy­cho­log­i­cal acu­ity that Ack­er­man brings to her por­traits of our nar­ra­tor and Jensen. This isn’t real­ly a prob­lem except that the premise of the book is so appeal­ing; one wants to know all these Brit­tanys who share names and swap clothes but dif­fer so much in their per­son­al­i­ties, tri­als, and joys. Brief flash-for­wards scat­tered through­out the book reveal grown-up Brittany’s per­spec­tive on the events of 2004 and sat­is­fy­ing con­clu­sions to the char­ac­ters’ sto­ries. It would be nice to have more of all the girls in the main time­line as well.

Still, this approach feels true to a time of life when friend­ships — and moods, romances, goals, and even one’s sense of iden­ti­ty — can all shift sud­den­ly. Brit­tany is smart and per­cep­tive, but she’s also four­teen and so caught up in her own head that she fails to notice major events hap­pen­ing in her fam­i­ly, like her brother’s own struggles.

Ack­er­man por­trays teen­dom with sear­ing clar­i­ty and humor. The Brit­tanys is full of details so vivid that it’s both painful and plea­sur­able when they remind us of our own teen years. Even if you came from wild­ly dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances than these wealthy Boca girls, there’s a uni­ver­sal­i­ty to the con­fu­sion and yearn­ing that accom­pa­nies grow­ing up. The Brit­tanys will make you feel nos­tal­gic but also so glad to be out of high school.

Jessie Szalay’s writ­ing has appeared in Gulf Coast, Aspara­gus, The For­ward, Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Trav­el­er, and as a notable in the Best Amer­i­can Essays of 2017. She lives in Salt Lake City where she teach­es writ­ing in a prison edu­ca­tion program.

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