Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Book Review: "The Virgins: A Novel" by Pamela Erens

Do you remember what it was like when you thought you could tell everything about a person simply by looking at them? (Maybe you still think this.) More specifically, do you remember in high school thinking that the so-called "popular" crowd must have had it made, that the couples you saw together all the time might be together forever, that the "smart kids" had it easier than anyone else?

Pamela Erens' new novel The Virgins seeks to capture that time, those feelings. It's 1979 at Auburn Academy, a prestigious New England prep school. Seung Jung, an affably popular Korean athlete, proctor, and dabbler in recreational drugs, begins a relationship with new student Aviva Rossner, a mid-western Jewish girl both desperate to be noticed and not to be noticed, who is trying to escape an unhappy childhood. While Seung is laid-back while Aviva is intense, the two find refuge in each other and their relationship, and are caught up in the youthful exuberance of young love and sexual exploration.

"Even the teachers talked about them. Seung Jung and Aviva Rossner were bewitched."

The couple isn't ashamed of demonstrating their affection for one another wherever they are, much to the chagrin of teachers and school administrators, and both the resentment and titillation of their fellow students. Bruce Bennett-Jones, a student quick to point out he descends from one of the "better" families in New Jersey (from the same town as Seung, but from the "right side of the tracks"), narrates the novel, both from remembered observations as an outsider looking in at Aviva and Seung's relationship, and details he imagined as someone resentful of the relationship, since he was attracted to Aviva himself.

As we often learn, however, what we see and what we believe to be true isn't always the reality, and that is the case for Seung and Aviva's relationship, which struggles far short of the unbridled sexual congress their peers imagine they partake in constantly. Laden down by physical and emotional pressures, by the expectations of Seung's parents and the dissolving marriage and disregard of Aviva's, the couple realizes that they, too, don't really understand each other, which ultimately leads to tragic consequences.

The Virgins all too accurately captures the feelings of adolescent relationships and the way they affect others. And while Bruce Bennett-Jones is an unsympathetic narrator, the way Pamela Erens describes his conflicted emotions and actions is spot-on as well. I found it interesting that the book was set in 1979, because apart from random mentions of historical events (and the absence of cell phones, emails, and text messages), I didn't necessarily feel that the time period had much of a bearing on what transpired in the book—so much of the feelings and issues it portrayed are the same today.

Erens is an excellent writer and she really hooked me on the plot pretty quickly. My only regret was that while I wanted to know what happened to the main characters, other than Seung, I didn't like them much. (It's a testament to Erens' storytelling ability that some of the supporting characters were far more interesting and dynamic than Aviva and Bruce, and in fact, I would love to know what happened to them.) Aviva's emotional coldness and vacillations made her less appealing, and Bruce's actions and simultaneous bravado and self-loathing made him very hard to care about. But again, it shows the strength of Erens' story that I wanted to keep reading despite disliking the characters.

The Virgins is a tremendously intriguing social commentary and a true reflection of a time in our lives we remember all too well, no matter how far away from it we come.

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