The Virgins: A Novel by Pamela Erens

The Virgins is narrated by Bruce Bennett-Jones, a senior at an exclusive New England prep school. He’s obsessed with Aviva, a beautiful and mysterious new girl, who arrives at school and, after a disastrous sexual encounter with Bruce, begins dating Seung, a star student and athlete with a drug habit. Through Bruce’s eyes and imagination, we follow their (presumably) highly sexual relationship and eventual descent into misery.

I’m not dedicating more space to explaining this book because I really, really disliked it. I was actually sort of shocked at how much I hated it–it had generally great reviews and seemed like the type of novel I’d enjoy. But man, I had to force myself to get through it.

The closest book I can compare this to is The Virgin Suicides, which is unfortunate, because this is a pale, pale imitator of an incredible novel. Just as in The Virgin SuicidesThe Virgins (is the name a coincidence? I think perhaps not) features a voyeuristic narrator(s) obsessively fantasizing about the inner life (lives) of a gorgeous, intriguing girl(s). It worked for me in Suicides–the prose is brilliant, the anonymous narrators are human enough that they never become creepy but passive enough that they don’t sidetrack the real focus of the story, and the subject of their obsession, the Lisbon girls, were fully-fleshed out, ethereal, and completely worthy of the attention they were given. In the case of Erens’ novel, the narrator is a straight-up asshole, taking the mostly innocent fascination of the Suicides’ narrators and turning it into something weirdly possessive and grossly sexual, and Aviva is just kind of boring. Part of the magic of Suicides was that we were in on the secret, as readers–we were a part of the voyeurism, as in love with the Lisbons as the boys were. I never felt that in The Virgins.

Writing a book with an unreliable narrator is tricky, especially when that narrator isn’t someone you can really root for. There needs to be some balance, some grounding in reality, and I felt like that escaped Erens quite a bit. Bruce, as a character and as a narrator, disappears frequently from the narrative, and it made me forget what I was “seeing” was all in his mind. That’s sort of the point, obviously, but it’s frustrating to have 90% of a book be completely staged in one character’s imagination. The pieces of reality were few and far between, and I couldn’t really get why Bruce would be so obsessed with Seung and Aviva. That element of mystery, of their perceived sexuality, only carries so far–the level of recreation Bruce got to was unrealistic and never fully explained. Bruce is no Humber Humbert, the epitome of a depraved, unlikeable, and highly unreliable narrator who was nonetheless infused with humanity and, most importantly, a sense of justification for his actions and thoughts. Bruce just seems to be a pawn of the author to advance a plot–he doesn’t show us why he does and thinks the things he does.

The other thing that really bothered me, and this is fairly minor but still worth mentioning, is that this book was supposed to take place in the 1970s, a fact which completely escaped me until I read it in a summary of the book on Goodreads. This just enforces my point that Erens doesn’t have enough control over her writing–the story could truly have taken place at any point in the last 40 years, and the fact that I assumed (and didn’t see anything to disprove) that it took place in contemporary times isn’t a great sign. There should be a point in having a story take place in a specific time period like that, and there should be fairly clear markers of that period throughout. Again, it’s not a huge thing, but it drove me a little crazy.

Anyway, I will say that Erens’ prose has a lovely, dreamy quality that’s certainly pleasant to read. It’s just that the writing doesn’t compensate for the lack of an engaging plot, and can’t sustain 120+ pages of what is essentially pointless drivel. I don’t recommend reading this at all–try The Virgin Suicides instead. Eugenides did it first, and did it infinitely better.