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Review: The Virgins by Pamela Erens



Highlights: The intriguing narrative strategy creates a sinister air of manipulation.
Synopsis: At a New England boarding school in the late 1970s, teenagers Aviva Rossner and Seung Jung undertake a doomed, Romeo and Juliet kind of love affair.



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Compelling main characters and strong writing make this much more than your average adolescent romance.


The surprisingly erotic scenes between teenage characters may make you feel uncomfortable.

Posted January 27, 2014 by

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Pamela Erens was for many years an editor of Glamour magazine, and published her first novel, The Understory, in 2007. Her second novel, The Virgins, was released last August by Tin House Books (who also published Karen Shepard’s The Celestials). John Irving is among the many big names who have praised Erens’s latest, an emotionally complex and darkly gripping love story set among teenagers at an exclusive New England boarding school.

As the novel opens in 1979, sixteen-year-old Aviva Rossner has just made her way from Chicago to New Hampshire to begin her junior year at Auburn Academy. Her parents are getting a divorce, and her sense of confusion and dislocation prompts her to start changing her image. No longer just some mousy Jewish girl, she picks up a reputation as ‘easy,’ especially when she starts hanging around with Seung Jung. Seung is the son of very demanding Korean parents, and although he is popular at school and a successful swimmer, he constantly struggles to meet their expectations.

It soon becomes clear that Aviva and Seung’s is an ill-fated, Romeo and Juliet kind of love. All their classmates assume they’re having sex all the time, but that isn’t true. Though these two are desperate to lose their virginity to each other, it never quite seems to happen for them.

Perhaps what is most unique about the novel is that it is not written from Aviva or Seung’s perspective, or told by a third-person omniscient narrator. In fact, it is narrated in the first person by Bruce Bennett-Jones, an amateur dramatics enthusiast who has been obsessed with Aviva since he kissed her on the day she arrived at Auburn. The first line of the novel suggests that it might be, like Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides, a case of the intriguing first-person plural: “We sit on the benches and watch the buses unload.” Maybe this will be, like Eugenides’s novel, a collective, retrospective look at doomed teenagers, I thought.

But as the first chapter continues, readers learn that this is really Bruce’s story, and he is in careful control. It is impossible to forget that this is a voyeur’s tale, pieced together from what little Bruce has observed and heard. “Let me re-create her journey,” he says coyly before recounting Aviva’s long trip out to Auburn. Later he sets up her first encounter with Seung by proposing “They meet in music theory. Let’s say that…I’m convinced that she made the first move.”

Reminders of how this narrative has been deliberately constructed, and based on limited evidence, are frequent. Although Bruce is an entirely unreliable narrator, his account is all we have, and Erens’s writing is so good that it’s usually possible to overlook the framework and just get lost in the story, accepting it all at face value.

What is more difficult to accept, however, is that Bruce would be privy to the details of Aviva and Seung’s love life – described here in surprisingly explicit, erotic language. I found myself feeling uncomfortable every time I remembered these characters are only 16 or 17 years old. They may struggle with sex itself, but the tender intimacy between them is somewhat shocking. Again, though, remember that this is all Bruce’s fantasy, overlaid on his acquaintances to suit his own purposes: that creepy edge of manipulation and almost pornographic imagining can be unnerving.

As the students plan their future after Auburn and deal with family breakups and romantic disillusionment, Bruce has one last chance to see if he can do more than just record events. Might he be able to change the course of the future for Aviva and Seung?

Like another book we’ve featured this week, Carrie Mesrobian’s Sex and Violence, The Virgins doesn’t shy away from some unpleasant realities. Similarly, it may be about teenagers, but I sense that it’s not really geared towards YA readers. The characters may seem immature at times, but they are dealing with tough issues like sexual dysfunction, drug abuse, domestic violence, and mental illness. (In this very melancholy book, I was most affected by the scene when Bruce’s friend Detweiler has a nervous breakdown and simply cannot face stepping outside the door of his dorm room.) I felt sad, even guilty, for these characters – they’re far too young to be faced with such experiences.

Along with The Virgin Suicides (to which, with the similar title, time period, and setup, it must be at least a semi-conscious homage), The Virgins reminded me strongly of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Benjamin Wood’s The Bellwether Revivals. All of these campus novels bear more than a slight air of menace. There is also a taste of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, a lighter, more gossipy boarding school novel that still touches on deep emotional issues.

I’m not sure I completely enjoyed The Virgins – it was a bit too creepy and graphic for me to be able to say I actually liked it – but I admired Erens’s narrative strategy and her hard-hitting story of angsty teenage romance.

Review: The Virgins by Pamela Erens 5.00/5 (100.00%) 1 vote

Rebecca Foster

An American transplant to Reading, England – a fitting place for a fiendish bibliophile. After six years as a library assistant, I am recklessly embarking on a freelance writing career. I review books for Kirkus Indie, The Bookbag, For Books' Sake, We Love This Book, and Bookmarks magazine, and also volunteer with Greenbelt Festival's literature program. I read everything from theology to popular science, but some favorite genres are literary fiction, biography and memoir, historical fiction, graphic novels, and nature writing. Check out all my articles.


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