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When Ella Berman was 16 years old, she went on a trip with friends to Marbella, a city on the southern coast of Spain. Looking back, she's surprised her parents approved the trip. "I keep saying to my mom, 'How on earth did you let me go?'"
Having written the book "Before We Were Innocent," Berman is particularly attuned to all that can go wrong when a group of teenage girls goes to some beautiful location with no supervision and a lot of interpersonal angst.
For her next book, out April 4, 2023, the author of the Read With Jenna pick "The Comeback" chose to explore the particular powder keg of teenage friendships fueled by class divides and personality differences, and a tragedy that stems from it.
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In "Before We Were Innocent," three teenage girls travel to Greece for the summer before college, knowing their friend group will never be the same. Only two come back alive. Evangeline, whose family home the girls are staying at, dies — and Joni and Bess, the survivors, are the subject of scrutiny and rumors for the rest of their lives, starting with that summer. While Joni and Bess are never charged, they are guilty in the court of public opinion.
The novel is narrated by Bess a decade after that fateful summer. Isolated in her small house, she's never been able to move on. When Joni, who is now a self-help guru and motivational speaker, returns into her life and is connected to yet another case with eerie parallels to Evangeline's death, Bess is forced to revisit all that happened.
"Before We Were Innocent" is not the book Berman planned to write, but it's the book she felt called to write while in lockdown. After "The Comeback," Berman tried writing multiple drafts of a book, but it wasn't working. "I was like, 'I'm just gonna write exactly what I want to write,'" she told TODAY.
Surrounded by teenage diaries, she immersed herself in the visceral emotion of those years, which Joni, Evangeline and Bess are all navigating. "I've always wanted to write a story about teenage friendship, just because it's so intense," Berman said. "The dark side to the love you feel."
Joni, Bess and Evangeline's differences of course fuel the plot. Bess is an L.A. transplant from the U.K., who Berman described as an "observer" and "deep thinker." She said, "She's taught himself to be smaller than she naturally is." Joni is the child of two titans in the beauty industry and is "tough and quiet." She's "built up walls around her but on the inside is more vulnerable than any of them." Evangeline grew up in an extremely wealthy but emotionally cold household. "She can be both entitled and insecure and eager to please — I'd say for the wrong reasons," she said.
In the book, these universal feelings are coupled with the unique experience of a sudden trauma, and then the spotlight of the media.
"I thought it would be interesting to explore how that could impact to people very differently and the different directions you could go as a result of it," she said.
To research the book, Berman was able to take a getaway to Greece's Cycladic islands, where the book takes place. "Greece is so beautiful and tranquil that your nightmares are even more nightmarish because it's a juxtaposition with beauty and absolute hell of something going wrong," she said.
"Before We Were Innocent" is released in April 2023.
For more book recommendations, check out:
- All of Jenna Bush Hager's book club picks
- 30 of the best books to sink into this summer
- 10 books to read this summer, according to bestselling author Harlan Coben