Pamela 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.