The Virgins – book review

The VirginsI finished reading this in about two days, so can’t deny that it’s an absorbing story. Published a few years ago to rave reviews and numerous award nominations, it’s Pamela Erens’ second book (her first, The Understory, was reissued last year). The Virgins is exactly the kind of semi Young Adult title I normally love – slutty, damaged boarding school students, sex, drugs, heady summer nights on the baseball field and an obviously unreliable narrator. In this case, the narrator isn’t just untrustworthy, he’s downright nasty; Bruce Bennett-Jones is a depressed, unattractive bully who sets himself up as a wannabe rapist within the first twenty pages of the novel. He describes himself as “someone filled with ugly and perhaps uncontrollable impulses”, attacking the female protagonist, Aviva, in the college boathouse and then spending the rest of the book obsessing over her and her American-Korean boyfriend Seung Jung. Their relationship and its tragic end is described in explicit detail, with Bruce’s role in their story gradually revealed to be more than just voyeur.

It’s hard to put my finger on what I didn’t like about this book; the characterisation and the general vibe of the novel just didn’t quite come off for me. The whole unreliable narrator thing was too laboured – from the outset, he admits “I’m inventing Seung, too, of course. It’s the least I can do for him.” Why does Erens have to spell that out for us? The whole book is essentially about Aviva and Seung but we’re told right at the start that everything that happens to them behind closed doors is fabricated or based on a few consequential details. For me, that undermines all the potentially interesting elements of the couple’s relationship; Seung’s sexual failure and Aviva’s response for instance, which could be a really interesting exploration of teenaged sex and disappointment but instead ends up being dismissible as our narrator’s jealous fantasy.

(JD was pretty disappointed by the book at this point)

Whilst Seung was a well-drawn character, for me Erens’ treatment of Aviva is a bit sketchy and contradictory (maybe this is a deliberate thing because she’s writing from Bruce’s perspective?). We’re told throughout that Aviva dresses provocatively to stand out from the crowd, yet her personality is painted as quiet and reclusive. She comes across as a thin, mousy, scared little girl; an eating disorder is hinted at but never fully explored. Her character is passive throughout the whole book, even at the end when she basically fades out, never to be seen again – maybe Erens is projecting Bruce’s misogynistic interpretation of her, but I think that means we lose a really interesting female lead.

No spoilers, but the ending of the book is well executed and I finished reading more convinced by this novel than I was fifty pages in. Given that everyone else seems to love it, including my hero John Irving (!), I’d recommend you give it a try for yourselves – her new book Eleven Hours is out next May and I’ll be interested to read it. Still, by setting this up as another Virgin Suicides, Erens set me up for some inevitable disappointment.

The Virgins is available from Amazon, priced £7.99.

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