The Virgins, by Pamela Erens

A steamy swoon of a young adult novel set in the mid-70s at an East Coast boarding school. As the title suggests The Virgins is all about first times and Erens devotes a lot of the novel on the preambles to sexual rites of passage. Jealousy, appearances and lot of longing sighs are spun into the narrative that follows Aviva, a pixieish brunette and Seung, a frustrated Korean American, through fumbles that Erens gives unlimited suspense to with the fear of being caught by teachers. Despite what sounds like a cheeky premise, The Virgins is a deeply serious narrative that keeps a straight face on even the most teenage of misadventures.

An interesting aspect to the love affair is the third component and narrator, the caddish-sounding villain Bruce Bennett-Jones. We’re told early on in the narrative that Bruce has made up the backstories of the characters based on his distant observations of the couple. Perhaps Bruce’s salivating view of the two excuses how distant and often unsympathetic both lovers are, but the narrative dips in and out of this malevolent edge to glaze it all with the nostalgia for being as downright horny as teenagers.

Eren’s style does capture the earnestness and darkness of young relationships with a keen eye. A supporting character is caught in the cyclic malice of an abusive relationship and the threat of sexual assault lingers around Aviva. Sex has dark consequences and the narrative is constructed in a way that makes losing virginity quasi-metaphysical and certainly transcends any idea of social labels. Eren’s prose goes heavy on the atmosphere and melodrama to make the corridors of the boarding school oppressed with sexual tension. A surprising lack of dialogue for a high school novel adds to the self-absorption and the fixation on privacy: Aviva and Seung are regularly berated for exhibiting their intimacy that seems to fog up every surface near them.

Obviously, both of the lovers have a tough time with their parents and Erens uses every angle she can to make the characters seems complex and wise beyond their years. Aviva’s attractive level of bookish depression and Seung’s masculine athleticism and fondness for drugs make them the perfect sexy couple intended to be desired by and not alienate adolescent readers.

The narrative structure, alert with the male gaze and a few nice hints at the climax, does liven up the story that offers little fresh insight into how virginity is viewed. The sort-of aims of literary style does have a faint echo of Donna Tart’s The Secret History and the level of sexiness throughout definitely makes this enjoyable for young adults. The Virgins revels in its obsession with sex and relationships that would make it the envy of other coming of age dramas and falls into teenage indulgence with wild abandon.

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TITLE: The Virgins
AUTHOR(S): Pamela Erens
PUBLISHER: Hachette
RRP: $39.99
ISBN: 9781848549876

General fiction reviewer and generally bumbling Literature graduate. Having recently moved from London to Wellington, she’s still getting to grips with the Kiwi accent, not having to queue for everything or saying ‘sorry’ constantly. Her literary tastes sway towards modernists, novels featuring moany women (Madam Bovary) and authors with a filthy sense of humour (Henry Miller). Read more at jazzcroftjc.wordpress.com

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