The Virgins (30 January 2014) by Pamela Erens
Set at Auburn, an American pre-college prepatory school in the late 1970s/early 1980s, The Virgins tells a familiar tale of first love and sexual awakening. The narrative, however, has an unusual structure: the story of the romance between students Aviva and Seung is told from the perspective of a third, largely uninvolved, character, Bruce. Bruce is privy only to occasional, out-of-context snippets of the couple's relationship, but around these slivers of knowledge he embroiders a complex, destructive, ultimately tragic tale. It is clear he is telling this story from a later, perhaps present-day, point of view and that these events are far behind him, but he contends that the fall-out from Aviva and Seung's involvement changed the lives of everyone who knew them.
At first it seems that Bruce could be described as a detached observer; at times he is so detached from the story he is telling that he seems not to exist at all. When I started writing this review, I couldn't even remember his name and had to look it up. However, the deeper you get into the book the more it becomes apparent that this is very much the way Bruce wants it, and that his account is very unreliable indeed. Before Aviva and Seung become a couple, Bruce develops an apparently random obsession with Aviva and seems thereafter to believe he has some possessive right over her. His story includes many intimate details of Aviva and Seung's relationship that he couldn't possibly know; nor does he claim anyone reliable has told him these things.
The characters in this book are an unlikeable lot, but it's difficult to know quite what to make of Aviva, Seung or anyone else since you only see any of them through Bruce's eyes. Although his narrative voice is eloquent and lyrical, Bruce himself is an unpleasant, sexist man who early in the story virtually attempts to rape Aviva. The fact that he tells the story as an older man only adds to the uneasiness, since he still seems so obsessed with these events, things that happened when he was very young. Seung is bland - really he's a cipher, he could be anyone - and it doesn't feel as though the reader ever really gets to understand him. As for Aviva herself, I was never quite sure whether I actually disliked her or whether her character was just impossibly unrealistic. It seemed like she was supposed to be an untouchably perfect girl who everyone desired but, at the same time, also a weirdo and a misfit with countless issues - but was this the author's intention, or Bruce's? Of course Bruce would want to find some way to bring Aviva down, since he appears to simultaneously lust after her, idolise her and hate her, and of course he'd want Seung to seem dull.
Much of Bruce's story revolves around what he believes to be Aviva and Seung's sexual exhibitionism, and he asserts that they are seen this way by everyone, but again this is an unreliable view and one that seems unlikely to be true. They're in a boarding school full of male and female students between the ages of 14 and 17 - it seems highly unlikely they would be a) the only students in a committed relationship, b) the only students 'visibly' having sex and c) regarded by other students of their age as being deviants of some kind for 'flaunting' their relationship. It says a lot about the extent of Bruce's jealousy that he refers to Aviva as 'the great Auburn slut' - she is only ever seen with one boy! If anything I'd have thought it would be considered quite old-fashioned and sweet that Aviva and Seung were so devoted to one another. But of course, it would also be likely to provoke a lot of envy among students who weren't so lucky, and it's this, or at least this in Bruce's case, that is the real underlying linchpin of the plot.
I have mixed feelings about this book. Erens writes beautifully and the whole concept is so interesting - I am a big fan of stories that prompt you to wonder how much of the story is real and how much is imagined. I'd be interested to know why a female writer would choose to tell a story like this from the perspective of such a horrible male character (and, I admit, I would probably have judged the book still more harshly if the author had been a man). And, at least, Bruce's unreliability means it's perfectly possible the final event didn't actually happen - I certainly HOPE it didn't, and I choose to believe it didn't. The fact that we never really discover what became of Bruce afterwards is a little frustrating, but adds to the sinister and untrustworthy feel of the whole thing.
I've said this before but I always feel the need to make the point anyway: a contemptible character does not make a bad book - in fact the opposite can sometimes be the case, especially when combined with the conceit of the unreliable narrator - but when you have a character who is neither likeable, nor entertaining, nor in any way fascinating, it's hard to want to spend any time in their company. If Bruce was a real person I would hide in cupboards to avoid him. Having to go back, repeatedly, to read his story elicited a similar feeling: his attitude towards women in general, Aviva in particular, sex and relationships left a bad taste in my mouth. The major strong point of this book is the powerful, evocative style, yet that was often lost in Bruce's unpleasantness, and I couldn't help but think it was wasted on him. Still, The Virgins is a powerful and memorable narrative.
I received an advance review copy of The Virgins from the publisher through NetGalley.
Rating: 7/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Booklikes | Bloglovin' | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback