The Virgins by Pamela Erens

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The Virgins by Pamela Erens

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: An insightful look at teenage love. It's beautifully written and gripping to read. Recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: January 2014
Publisher: John Murray
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1848549876

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Set in 1979-80 in an elite boarding school on the east coast of the USA The Virgins tells the story of two young people. The story is mainly narrated by Bruce Bennett-Jones who would have liked to have a close relationship with Aviva Rossner but her unlikely choice was Seung Jung. They're not shy about flaunting their relationship and it's the talk of Auburn Academy, but whilst the watchers believe that the relationship is one of unalloyed passion, the truth is rather different and the couple are set on a path to an inevitable tragedy.

I very nearly didn't read this book: teenage sexuality is a rather distant memory and frankly it's difficult to do well, to capture the nuances and avoid the book seeming like YA fiction with added sex. But I was persuaded and Pamela Erens lives up to the promises I was given. The writing is startlingly good. Pick the book up and it looks, feels, quite slight but there isn't a wasted word. Every sentence earns its keep and the plotting is taught. If I had to make a quibble about the plot it's that the nature of the tragedy is signposted just a little too early. There's a dark feel to the story, a feeling that all could not work out well but I really didn't need to know what would happen (if not exactly how and why) quite so soon.

The narrator is a masterstroke. Bennett-Jones is obviously jealous of Seung but he's remarkably preceptive. He watches, intrigued, half admitting to himself that he's waiting for an opportunity but struggling in his own way under the burden of his family's expectations. Seung's family have their expectation too. The background is Korean and his father is a PhD whilst his mother is a doctor. They're not at all keen on his Jewish girlfriend. But Aviva has her own problems. Her parents are breaking up and whilst she seems to have money now she's not secure about it, but then that insecurity pervades her life despite appearances to the contrary.

There's an insightful look at the nature of love and how it contrasts with lust and need. The difference between love and lust is - at least superficially - obvious but the love/need balance is more thought provoking. Do I love you because I need you - or need you because I love you? Even better is that way that teenage relationships are captured - their all-consuming nature and the way that they are short-lived.

It's a surprisingly good book and I'm grateful that I was pressed into reading it. I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

If this book appeals then you might also enjoy Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson.

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