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.