New England setting? Check. Boarding school? Check. Teenage angst? Check.
You can read the blurb for Pamela Erens’s The Virgins here but in short, it’s about a teenage boy and girl (Seung and Aviva) who everyone thinks are hard at it at every opportunity but are in fact not at all. But not through want of trying. Hence the title.
The plot is simple (although there are a few surprises) but what is interesting about this book is the way that Erens has created an adult story about teenagers, and more specifically, teenage sex.
“We beginners experienced sex as psyche more than body, as vulnerability and power, exposure and flight, being anointed, saved, transfigured. To fail at it – to do it wrong – was to experience (and please do not smirk; try to remeber what it was like, once upon a time) the death of one’s ideal soul.”
Erens was clever setting this story in the late seventies – not only does it play directly to her likely readership but it also puts the focus firmly on the emotional relationships. If the same story was set in the present, would Seung and Aviva have been googling “Why can’t I….” Actually, don’t worry about that, I don’t even want to think about what teenagers are googling.
I liked that Erens choose another character, classmate Bruce, as the narrator – it gave the story a voyeuristic edge and although his voice faded a little in parts, there was enough direct contact between him, Seung and Aviva to pull it back. Bruce’s own sexual relationship with his girlfriend, Lisa, is used to play against what he imagines Seung and Aviva are up to – needless to say Bruce’s fantasies are far more exotic than his reality with Lisa.
Erens has a particular and admirable writing style. It’s descriptive without being flowery – “Four thirty, the grass darkening, the sky pressing near”, and small details speak volumes about the characters – “…there’s an arrogance about Aviva Rossner that he’s never liked, a sense she conveys of following the rules only because they happen to suit her.”
There’s some meaty themes about family, expectations, self-esteem, eating disorders and drugs for those that want to peel back the layers but my take-away message? Kissing. Teenagers spend a lot of time kissing. In my day* we called it ‘pashing’ or ‘getting on with someone’. Back in the seventies or eighties (or nineties), what did you call it (straw poll amongst my blogging buddies!)?
I received my copy of The Virgins from the publisher, Hachette Australia, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
3/5 The cover features a testimonial from John Irving – that’s all I needed to know.
* Could I sound any older?!