The Virgins, by Pamela Erens
I’m on a roll here, folks. A week ago, I finished reading Wendy Lee’s Across a Green Ocean, the first published novel I read this year. And now here I am, merely a week later, with another notch on my belt. I’m almost two years too late, as Pamela Erens‘s The Virgins came out August 2013, but I’ll say it again: better late than never. (I think that might be the phrase that goes on my tombstone.)
Firstly, let me say I know Pamela personally to a very slight degree; we have friends in common so we’ve met during family-related/neighborly celebrations. And I was at one of her book parties when The Virgins came out. “I can’t wait to read it!” I’m fairly certain I said (lied). I’m sorry, Pamela — I’m just really, really slow.
Have I apologized enough? Probably not. But it’s time to move on. It’s time to read this book, everyone. This very sexy book, and I’m not just throwing that word around. This novel is seriously, incredibly sexy. Like you’ll blush as you read it. I know I did, several times, and I don’t blush easily. If you are squeamish about reading about people having sex, teenagers in particular, what the hell is wrong with you? Sorry. I meant to write, “then this book isn’t for you.” (But seriously, what is wrong with you?)
A side (though I feel like this post has been just one big side so far): for those people who read trashy romance novels or whatever the hell it is that E.L. James writes (from the bits I’ve glanced, I wish I hadn’t), you should give The Virgins a shot, because then you wouldn’t feel so guilty about reading terribly written novels about sex. Pamela composes gorgeous, sustained sentences that I guarantee will get you hot under the collar. Her sentences will also make you feel. Sometimes they’ll make you sad. Sometimes they’ll make you laugh. But you will very much feel (even against your will, sometimes) the tortured, elated, breathless, dangerous lives of these students at Auburn Academy, a boarding school that made me glad my parents were poor and could not have sent me to such an institution.
The Virgins is also a very well-crafted book with wholly unexpected twists and turns, but the best kind that make terrible tragic sense when all’s said and done. It’s a fast read, and full of literary flair. Just the very POV that Pamela chose is kind of remarkable (neither of the leads but an insider-wannabe outsider who voyeuristically and imaginatively narrates the novel). If you enjoy The Virgins, then I’d very much recommend her first novel, The Understory, which also features a male narrator with some serious problems, one of which is unrequited love, a theme that I now declare has emerged in the Erens oeuvre (I feel very grown up now, having used that fancypants word). I’ve read that one, too, and like The Virgins, it is equally devastating and disturbing.
By the way, something else that was kinda-sorta disturbing — the lead male in this novel is a Korean-American kid named Seung. That’s just one letter away from my own name! And I’m Korean, too! Though in this novel, his pronunciation is different (“the past tense to sing“), so no worries, totally different guy. I’ve actually told people something similar when they ask how I say my name — “the past participle of the verb to sing.” (I’ve since learned that some people don’t know the past participle tense, so I’ve retired this phrase…)
One last thing — James Salter is an author often mentioned in reference to The Virgins. I presume Pamela also honors him by naming one of Auburn’s teachers Mr. Salter. In case you haven’t heard, Salter passed away on June 19. Here’s a beautiful obituary in Grantland by one of my favorite writers.
August 2013/Tin House Books