Saturday, May 14, 2016

Book Review: The Virgins by Pamela Erens

I can't remember the last book I read that won me over with its tone and narration from the first page.  Taking place during the 1979-1980 academic year at a prestigious prep school in New Hampshire, Pamela Erens' The Virgins follows Aviva and Seung, a couple who has the entirety of Auburn Academy watching as they fall in love all over campus. Is their affection more of a distraction because he is Korean-American and she is Jewish? All signs point to yes, but there's much more to the story. 

The Virgins comes off as simultaneously retro and modern. Pay phones are a necessity and computers don't yet exist, but there's a current day feel in the way the teenage characters operate independently (perhaps that's just a result of the prep school setting).  Aviva is confident in her right to express herself as a sexual being.  Seung is a frequent dabbler in all sorts of recreational drugs. The sex throughout is frank and raw, but never raunchy.  The teens' emotions, fears and interactions are even more frank and raw. Every move, good or bad, makes them more human and even more relateable to the reader.

One of the best parts of The Virgins is that every word is perfectly placed and important to the story. The fact that Erens is able to make almost all of the characters in The Virgins sympathetic in some way is no easy task because so many of them are not terribly likeable.  The narrator, Bruce Bennett-Jones, a classmate of Aviva and Seung, is extremely unreliable as he tells the story as a third-party looking on from afar.  He's infatuated with Aviva, jealous of Seung, and unable to understand why he is not admired or popular among his peers even though he is from a prominent family.

Having Bruce Bennett-Jones as the narrator makes the book feel as though it's a glorified game of 'Telephone' in the best way possible.  Is Bennett-Jones making up these stories? Are they just tidbits of real tales that he's heard that he's spinning into what he wishes had really happened?    Either way, The Virgins is a quiet, tragic novel that makes you think twice about what is really happening behind every closed door and inside every person's mind.