The Virgins, by Pamela Erens


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.

The Virgins
Tin House Books
August 2013

The Maribar Writers Colony on Cricket Hill

Doesn’t this look like a great place to get some writing done?


The Maribar Writers Colony on Cricket Hill


Here’s a bit more about it:

The Maribar Writers Colony on Cricket Hill is a tranquil retreat for writers living and working in urban areas to finish or complete substantial work on an existing project.  Located in a 18th- and 19th-Century farmhouse on Milford Haven just off the Chesapeake Bay in the rural Tidewater region of Virginia, the colony in 2015 will accommodate six writers for ten days in October.


This is a passion project of a former colleague of mine at NYU.  Check it out if you are looking for some peace and quiet to write, write, write.

Across a Green Ocean, by Wendy Lee

Across a Green Ocean, by Wendy Lee

Across a Green Ocean, by Wendy Lee

As shameful as this is to admit, Wendy Lee’s Across a Green Ocean is the first published novel I’ve read this year.  Yes, it is almost the end June.  Yes, I am supposedly a writer of fiction.  So half of the year has come and gone and I’ve read a total of ONE book!

Well, better one than none, right?  At least that’s what I’m telling myself.  And I’m so glad the one book I have read is Wendy’s.  Wendy and I are NYU MFA compatriots, though I never actually knew her while she was attending the program.  But we’ve become friends since, and I’m happy to let readers know there’s a fine novel waiting for them.

Susan Choi wrote in her blurb for Across a Green Ocean that “the past is always present, and the present is never quite what it seems,” and this is really quite the apt descriptor for this novel.  The primary power of Across a Green Ocean is derived from remembrance, as the three main characters, mother (Ling), daughter (Emily), and son (Michael), delve deeply into their past through flashbacks to come to decisions and realizations about their intertwining lives after the passing of Han, the patriarch of the family.  The novel spans both time (decades in memory) and space (USA and China), and Wendy does a marvelous job of keeping this complicated narrative machine running smoothly.  There’s a lot of moving parts here plotwise, and varying POV techniques, too, as the Michael section is written in the present tense while the Ling and Emily sections are in the more traditional past tense.

I think this was a very ingenious move by Wendy, to put Michael’s sections in the present, because he is the one who has to carry the toughest load.  He spends the bulk of the novel in a remote part of China, so we as readers have the most difficult time being in his shoes.  By employing the present tense, we feel so much closer to the action.  Everything Michael is encountering is happening now, and the immediacy is very much felt.  Bravo!

I’m not going to spend much time discussing the plot, as a quick click to Amazon will give you all you need (and will also give you the great opportunity to buy the book!).  One thing I found very funny is that Across a Green Ocean and my forthcoming novel, Love Love, share some odd plot similarities:

  • a family story starring brother and sister
  • the brother goes somewhere else to find himself
  • a letter from the past is the driving factor for this search

Weird, right?  Not quite Twilight-Zone level weirdness, but weird nonetheless.  Oh, and these are both our second novels.  Must be something in the water.

Wendy Lee
Across a Green Ocean
February 2015/Kensington

First Review of Love Love




The first review of Love Love is in, and if the rest are like this one, I’ll be one happy guy.  Thank you, Kirkus, for being kind and saying nice things about my second novel.


As their father’s body is ravaged by illness, two siblings try to recover from failed marriages and rebuild their lives.

Judy Lee is 38-years-old. Still reeling from her divorce just over a year ago, she has no husband, no kids, and no house. She’s just quit her temp job and lives in a small apartment littered with old food and worn clothes. Her brother, Kevin,, a former tennis pro who’s also recently divorced, is doing a little better, but he’s just found out, after a routine screening to see if he can donate a kidney to his ailing father, that he was actually adopted. Even though Kevin is completely overwhelmed by the news, he thinks Judy should donate a kidney, but Judy is unable to forgive her father for having had “the audacity to carry on an affair while his wife was dying.” Haltingly, Judy embarks on a new relationship with a former co-worker, but Kevin is mired in the past. Memories of his ex-wife haunt him even as he travels to San Francisco to search for information about his birth parents. Kevin and Judy are opposites: Kevin, the calm, methodical, successful one, Judy, the disorganized, chaotic mess. At times, this characterization feels a little too pat—and, when Judy’s presence is occasionally subsumed in the moments when Kevin takes over the narrative, a tad imbalanced as well. But as the plot progresses, and each outgrows these self-imposed labels, the narrative becomes about the performance of self: who we tell ourselves we are, who others perceive us to be. “Who are you?” characters ask each other more than once. In the end, the answer is that we are so much more than can ever be articulated.

A writer of deep pathos and empathy, Woo (Everything Asian, 2009) has given us a deeply felt novel of parents and children, husbands and wives—the many ways we try to connect and fail; and how sometimes, somehow, we succeed.


Pub Date: Sept. 8th, 2015
ISBN: 978-1-59376-617-7
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Soft Skull Press
Review Posted Online: June 15th, 2015
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 2015