Book Review | The Virgins by Pamela Erens

the-virgins-book-review-paiges-pagesTITLE: The Virgins
AUTHOR: Pamela Erens
PUBLISHER: Tinhouse Books
RELEASE DATE: August 6, 2013
GENRE: Adult Fiction

After reading Eleven Hours, Pamela Erens’ newest novel, The Virgins fell short of my expectations.  Her best-known book is ambitious, but failed to emotionally connect with me.  

Aviva and Seung meet at their prestigious boarding school and start an illicit affair.  Battling with low self-esteem and an eating disorder, Aviva is desperate to lose her virginity to her Korean American boyfriend.  However, failed attempt after failed attempt pitches these star-crossed lovers into a whirlwind of shame that threatens to tear their lives apart.

The Virgins addresses countless taboo topics – eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic abuse, self-harming, and sexual dysfunction to name a few.  The story revolves around misperceptions many young people hold of sex, and how pivotal sexuality is in the coming-of-age narrative and construction of identity.

We beginners experienced sex as psyche more than body, as vulnerability and power, exposure and flight, being anointed, saved, transfigured.  To fail at it – to do it wrong – was to experience (and please do not smirk; try to remember what it was like, once upon a time) the death of one’s ideal soul – page 49

The Virgins is narrated in the first person by Bruce, one of Aviva and Seung’s colleagues at Auburn Academy.  Infatuated with Aviva since the moment he first laid eyes on her, he describes her and Seung’s doomed love affair from an outsider’s point of view.

I don’t see the purpose of deliberately distancing us from the protagonists by using a dislikable – even repulsive – character as the narrator.  As a result, the potential to connect with Aviva and Seung on a deep, personal level was wasted.  This disappointed me because I wanted to know them deeper but never had the opportunity.  Erens’ ambition is clear, but her execution was disjointed and frustrating.  I hated being limited to Bruce’s shallow and self-absorbed point of view.

Over the years I’ve come to understand that telling someone’s story – telling it, I mean, with a purity of intention, in an attempt to get at that person’s real desires and sufferings – is at one and the same time an act of devotion and an expression of sadism – page 59

This book feels like a bad rip-off of The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides.  Both are narrated from an outsider’s point of view and deal with painful aspects of growing up.  However, The Virgins lacks the intimacy and rawness to get to the heart of such tricky topics.  Which leaves me to wonder, what type of readership will benefit from reading this book?  Even though it’s written about young adults, I doubt young adults could connect to Erens’ style.

The Virgins left me in despair for its characters.  Erens doesn’t lift a finger to deliver them from their agony, and broke my heart for young people dealing with shame, mental illness, and abuse.  Although this book gave me lots to reflect on and opened some difficult topics to discussion, the overall story is depressing and frustrating.  

2 thoughts on “Book Review | The Virgins by Pamela Erens

  1. Georgiana Darcy says:

    I have a question, do you think it is a good idea for authors to address “countless taboos” or take upon “multiple mental illnesses” per book? A lot of times, I feel like authors don’t do a decent job at digging deep and the descriptions end up shallow and generic. It might be just a lack of research but I honestly think it’s better to talk about *one* mental illness at a time and have quality delivery of it to the readers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Paige @ Paige's Pages says:

      Great question. As a matter of fact, I really disliked this book overall and didn’t find it connected or resonated with me at all. At first, I was pleasantly surprised it had the guts to approach so many difficult topics, but it brushed over every one of them in a very shallow way. I didn’t like how any of the topics were handled in this book and was disappointed by how far off the mark it was.

      I totally agree with you that handling even *one* topic with real commitment and honesty is a million times better than trying to tick every box (and fail abysmally).

      Liked by 1 person

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