By Pamela Erens
(Tin House Books, Paperback, 9781935639626, 288pp.)
Publication Date: August 2013
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It’s 1979, and Aviva Rossner and Seung Jung are notorious at Auburn Academy. They’re an unlikely pair at an elite East Coast boarding school (she’s Jewish; he’s Korean American) and hardly shy when it comes to their sexuality. Aviva is a formerly bookish girl looking for liberation from an unhappy childhood; Seung is an enthusiastic dabbler in drugs and a covert rebel against his demanding immigrant parents. In the minds of their titillated classmatesparticularly that of Bruce Bennett-Jonesthe couple lives in a realm of pure, indulgent pleasure. But, as is often the case, their fabled relationship is more complicated than it seems: despite their lust and urgency, their virginity remains intact, and as they struggle to understand each other, the relationship spirals into disaster.
The Virgins is the story of Aviva and Seung’s descent into confusion and shame, as re-imagined in richly detailed episodes by their classmate Bruce, a once-embittered voyeur turned repentant narrator. With unflinching honesty and breathtaking prose, Pamela Erens brings a fresh voice to the tradition of the great boarding school novel.
Pamela Erens was raised in Chicago and attended Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale University, where she concentrated on literary theory and women’s studies. For many years she worked as a magazine editor, including at Glamour. Her editing and freelance journalism have won national awards.
Erens’s first novel, The Understory, published in 2007, was the winner of the Ironweed Press Fiction Prize and a finalist for both the 2007 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Erens has also published short fiction, poetry, and essays in literary journals and magazines ranging from Chicago Review and New England Review to O: The Oprah Magazine. She is the recipient of two New Jersey State Council on the Arts fellowships in fiction and was a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.
". . .The Virgins is both skillfully crafted and dangerous . . .Pamela Erens [has] told a devastating story. The Virgins is a brutal book, but it's flawlessly executed and irrefutably true."
John Irving, New York Times Book Review
"Adroitly capturing the anguish of adolescent desire, Erens's latest is a lesson in love, loss, and tragedy."
"Erens writes with great believability and sensitivity about the teenage years, when school and family pressures, along with sexual awakening, can seem like life-and-death issues. Whether she's describing a visit to an ice cream stand or Seung and Aviva's explorations of lovemaking, her prose is sensual and lyrical. . .Many readers will want to investigate this work."
"This newest addition to the 'boarding school novels we love' category mixes the unsettling drama of A Separate Peace with the sexual juiciness of Prep. . .The dark twist of an ending will haunt you for days."
"Perhaps it is going too far to say that The Virgins is primarily about the fundamental flaws of white, male narrators in fiction. It is also about sex, fearespecially of authorityclass, desire, shame and jealousy. But in reveling in the power of narrative, the book asks the reader to think about who isand who has beenallowed to wield it."
The New York Observer
"With The Virgins, Pamela Erens' intricate second novel, she has done a star turn with the prep school tale, giving it meaning for those who might not usually care about that world."
The Chicago Tribune, Editor's Choice
"It's rare to find a book that summons the delicate emotional state of teenagers especially when it comes to sex without being precious or cynical, but Pamela Erens' The Virgins beautifully manages that feat."
Los Angeles Times
"[Erens] manages a delicate bit of witchcraft such that, by halfway through the novel, our fingertips are humming on the page. And that is due to the way she summons so intensely the momentousness of adolescence, when everything feels big and important, and every moment feels like the one after which you will never be the same again."
"On par with the likes of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides and Sheila Kohler’s Cracks, The Virgins is a devastating tour de force that sets a new bar for unreliable narrators."
"A devilish narrator looks back on his boarding school days, when he and another young man develop an obsession with the new girl on campus. But he tells their story in a voyeuristic way, to make this one of the most troubling and serpentine novel of the year."
The Daily Beast
"Outsiders at a prestigious East Coast boarding school in 1979, Aviva Rossner and Seung Jung find and then tragically lose each other. Rarely has the anguish of young love, self-discovery, and sexual jealousyheightened by the sting of class divisionbeen rendered so tellingly."
"In her second novel, The Virgins, Pamela Erens paints an arresting portrait of adolescent sexuality at once beautiful, erotic, awkward, and shameful. With its racial tensions, vile narrator, and tragic climax, The Virgins reads like a prep school Othello, set to a soundtrack of Devo and Jethro Tull."
Leigh Stein, Los Angeles Review of Books
"In Pamela Erens’s evocative second book, The Virgins, boarding school is a microcosm of society, with its strict social norms that frown on blatant sexuality."
"With a lyrical voice, Pamela Erens has written a novel about first love and sexual awakening that is multilayers and perceptive...[The Virgins] is thickly layered with prose that intrigues the mind and captivates the senses."
"The metaphysics of The Virgins [is] that the potential eroticism in all things makes them all secretly significant."
"Erens brilliantly captures that time when someone is determined to give up virginity and how all-consuming sex becomes. She writes about the mystique, the slow building and the machinations Seung and Aviva experience."
New Jersey Star Ledger
"The Virgins does qualify as a new classic and students of the form will read it again and again."
Gently Read Literature
"Virginity is treated with. . .grace and subtlety in Pamela Erens’s latest novel, The Virgins (Tin House Books), a beautifully written story about two outcasts who form an all-consuming bond at an exclusive boarding school, as told, in secretive, sweaty detail, by a rather odious classmate."
"With a cover like this, who could resist a peek? What lay inside was even more riveting than the titillating, slightly disturbing, Lolita-esque photo that first encouraged me to have a go. A prep-school saga about sex, rumors, young love, and adult regret,The Virgins encouraged its readers to feel as frenzied, and libidinous, and strung out as a 17-year-old in the throes of first lust. This small, smart masterpiece is a beautiful shot of adrenalinewith a terrifying come down."
Hillary Kelly, The New Republic
"This is some of the strongest literary fiction I've read in a while..."
The Tattered Cover
"The Virgins reminded me how gratifying it is to fall into a good novelone that feeds the sense and makes us think."
The Common Online
"As an editor, I can say this is one of the most finely crafted books I’ve read. The fresh approach of a narrator who is imagining our scenes adds a compelling filter who still feels trustworthy. . .Erens handling of the characters sexuality and the grace with which she handles the sex sceneswith teenagersdeserves a separate round of applause. . .As a reader, I was simply moved."
The Painted Bride Quarterly, Drexel University
"Now that James Salter is in his twilight years, his considerable fan base will be ecstatic to encounter his heiress apparent, Pamela Erens, whose erotically charged prose reaches for naming the ineffable, honoring the elusive, and celebrating the bodily majesty of life. An extraordinary novel."
Antonya Nelson, author of Bound
"A sensual and haunting story of sexual awakening, Pamela Erens’s exquisitely written The Virgins vividly captures the thrill of youthful innocence and the crushing pain of its loss. This is a profoundand profoundly movingnovel. I couldn't put it down, and I didn't want it to end."
Will Allison, author of Long Drive Home
"Suspenseful and swift and well made, The Virgins, Pamela Erens's exciting new fiction, ratchets up the heat on the boarding school novel with ferociously sensual descriptions of frustrated lovelove imagined and love experienced. Easy to fall for this book and fall hard."
Christine Schutt, author of Prosperous Friends
Like the unforgettable Aviva Rossner, The Virgins is small but not slightintense, sublime, vivid, uncanny, irresistible. It joins the ranks of the great boarding school novels while somehow evoking the twisted, obsessive narrations of Nabokov’s Pale Fire or Wharton’s Ethan Frome. Pamela Erens is that rare writer who can articulateand gorgeouslythe secrets we never knew about ourselves."
Rebecca Makkai, author of The Borrower
The Virgins is a stunningly beautiful novel. It is precisely observed, skillfully constructed, and brilliantly written. This is possibly the best novel of the many good ones set in a New England prep school, that terrain of elegance and envy, of flowering and blight.”
John Casey, National Book Award-winning author of Spartina