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'The Virgins' by Pamela Erens, book review


Pamela Erens’s second novel is an anthem for doomed youth, an intense tale of teenage failure to make the leap to adult life. It is sensitively told, with Updike-like observation, but boy is it gloomy and joyless, and not recommended for neurotic parents of a teenager.

It’s 1979 and Aviva Rossner, an alluring Jewish girl from Chicago, is starting her first semester at the elite Auburn Academy boarding school (loosely based on the school Erens went to 10 years after the writer John Irving, who has praised Erens’s book as “flawlessly executed and irrefutably true”).

Aviva steps off the bus at school in inappropriate heels and is immediately accosted by Bruce Bennett-Jones. He is a small, pushy, objectionable youth, with the self-assurance only money can buy. Aviva soon rebuffs him in a boathouse clinch that turns ugly.

Bennett-Jones is the voyeur narrator who enviously relates Aviva’s subsequent doomed relationship with Seung Jung, a likeable, athletic Korean boy. He is Aviva’s soulmate in the alienation they share in this Wasp-ish setting – Aviva because she is “one of those”, as Bennett-Jones describes her, and feels estranged from her separating parents; Seung as an immigrant’s son from a modest, striving family. Aviva and Seung become the “it” couple at Auburn, perceived sexual pioneers whom everyone admires, notorious for their open affection, and emitting the message that they are “getting it”, constantly.

So far, it’s the stuff of teenage melodrama, but with little to lighten the mood. The heavy narrative gloom of the book is carried forward by early mention of Seung’s demise, recalling Irving’s malign “Under Toad” in The World According to Garp. There is always the feeling that death stalks the lives of these characters as they bounce, with wide-eyed lack of control, from one adolescent mishap to the next. The denouement, propelled by the uncomfortable reality of Aviva and Seung’s fumblings, is too grim to mention. I would spoil a future reader’s “enjoyment”.

The “irrefutable truth” which Irving mentions is certainly apparent in the acute perceptions Erens allows Bennett-Jones. On teenage sex, the subject that drips through the pages of this book, Bennett-Jones talks of adult misapprehension of their teen offspring’s urges: “For none of us was it really about asses and crotches ... We experienced sex as psyche more than body ... as being anointed, saved, transfigured.” Seung contemplates actually “going all the way” with Aviva “like imagining a field on the other side of a distant fence ... it will take time to get to”. Bennett-Jones concludes: “To fail at it [sex] – to do it wrong – was to experience ... the death of one’s ideal soul.”

This last sentence encapsulates the book: the painful, obsessional effort to attain the sexual prize, the metaphysical idealisation of a distant promised land of gratified desire yet to be visited. In other contexts, this is fertile ground for humour, but not here.

This is an accomplished work, but not one this neurotic dad wants to revisit. As a depiction of teenaged first love, I prefer Julian Barnes’s Metroland.