The Virgins by Pamela Erens: When things aren’t quite what they seem

The VirginsPamela Erens’ second novel comes with not one but two glowing quotes from John Irving’s New York Times Book Review piece on the cover. I’m amazed that even the New York Times can persuade an author of Irving’s lofty stature to review a book but clearly they have an impressive literary editor. It’s set in Irving’s own New England stomping ground at a prep school full of kids whose parents are bent on a glowing future for their offspring no matter how troubled and complicated their own lives have become. One such is the narrator, Bruce Bennett-Jones, now a theatre director who is looking back to the events of 1979. Every year the senior boys scrutinise the new girls as they arrive, avid for the possibility of sexual opportunity. Aviva, extraordinarily dressed in a split-skirted purple dress and high heels, catches everyone’s eye. She soon becomes involved with Seung, the son of strict Korean parents. Athletic, popular, the overseer of his dorm, he’s a boy who knows how to bend the rules and how not to get caught. They quickly become a golden couple: attractive, utterly besotted and open enough about it for every student at Auburn Academy to fantasise enviously about what they get up to, not least Bruce who has conceived an obsession for Aviva. But is their relationship all that it’s assumed to be?

I wasn’t at all sure I was going to like The Virgins – a couple of scenes of clumsy, over excited adolescent intimacy and I’d begun to worry that the entire novel would follow the same pattern – however Erens gradually draws you in, engaging your sympathy for her characters: very early on we know things are not going to turn out well for Aviva and Seung. Bruce is our guide to Auburn Academy, his unpleasantness established right from the start with his description of the Jewish Aviva as ‘one of those’. The suffocating atmosphere of a boarding school where everything becomes magnified, all perspective lost amidst the burgeoning adolescent sexuality and experimentation is vividly and skilfully evoked. Although we’re prepared for an unhappy ending the final twist when it comes is utterly shocking. Not a comfortable read then, but a thoroughly absorbing one.

8 thoughts on “The Virgins by Pamela Erens: When things aren’t quite what they seem”

  1. I think I read a similar review not long ago: the reviewer was afraid it would be a YA kind of novel, with first-love, clumsy and akward scenes, etc, but she liked it as well. I am interested in analyzing the novel from a “why” point of view: why are they a golden couple? Which are those qualities that make teenage golden couples among teenagers? I think being in awe of someone is already a pretty interesting process, but when it comes to a couple, things may be even more complex and interesting. What do you think about this construction of the admirable and the “golden” quality?

    (I will now have to buy/ask for a RC of this novel 😀 )

    1. That’s an interesting question, Elena. From my own reading I would say that they are attractive, so wrapped up in each other that they seem oblivious of everyone else and that all this takes place in a hothouse environment. Of course, all is not what it seems but I don’t want to give anything else away here! I hope you read it – I’d like to know what you think if you do.

  2. I picked this up this afternoon while I was browsing around Waterstones and then put it down after scanning through what I suspect is one of the clumsy scenes you mention. Having read your review I might now go back and reconsider reading it because I do enjoy school and campus novels, but I think it’s going to have to come from the library rather than be paid for out of my pocket.

    1. Those early scenes were very offputting, Alex, but it’s a novel that draws you in and has stayed with me, partly because of its ending.

  3. I will definitely have to go check out Irving’s review. From what you write, I can certainly understand why he was asked – but I’m as surprised as you that he agreed to do it. The book sounds really interesting too.

    1. It’s a slow burner. I wasn’t at all sure to begin with but it’s a novel that’s stayed with me – always a good sign.

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