This novel is set during the academic year of 1979-80, in an elite, East Coast boarding school - Auburn Academy. Our narrator is Bruce Bennett-Jones; something of a voyeur, he enjoys drama from the viewpoint of a director, rather than being on the stage. It is from this slightly distant perspective that we witness events, beginning with the arrival of Aviva Rossner, whom Bruce is instantly attracted to. Both come from wealthy families, but neither is as perfect as they first seem. Bruce's father is a judge, but his sons often resent his controlling behaviour and his mother drinks. Aviva's parents split up and neither she, nor her mother, knows how to cope without the money they have come to expect will be always there.
Before long, Aviva has met up with fellow student Seung Jung. Bruce and Seung were at a previous school together, where Seung had been seen as a slightly nerdy student - sometimes bullied - and where Bruce was far higher in the student pecking order. However, now that Seung is older, he is much more attractive and popular and it soon becomes apparent that he and Aviva are drawn together like moths to a flame. Before long they are a couple - in fact, `the' couple - displaying a public exhibitionism which gets them noticed by students and staff.
Author Pamela Erens recreates the stress of young passion very well in this novel. The difficulty of teenage hormones, too much self awareness and being on the cusp of adulthood and yet, still children, with others very much in control. Seung's Korean parents are concerned that his studies will be affected by his desire for this young girl from a different culture. There are issues with eating disorders, drug use and conflicting emotions. She perfectly captures that stage of life when everything seems so overwhelming and difficult to deal with. As the story continues, you sense that they are heading towards inevitable tragedy and can only, like Bruce, be a witness to unfolding events. This is a disturbing, unsettling read and, as well as being an interesting personal read, would offer a lot for reading groups to discuss.
Set in an elite American East Coast boarding school, this is a very clever book, one which becomes more chilling with hindsight - and yet which is oddly aloof and a bit emotionally detached from the events it recounts. Taking its literary lead from Othello, this tells of a strangely triangular relationship between the Iago-like narrator, and the teenage couple at its heart.
Erens captures well the stresses and fractures of adolescence - Aviva who needs to prove she exists from other people's reactions to her, Seung caught between his desires and his idealisms. All of the characters are outsiders in their own ways, from Bruce, the voyeuristic narrator, to the Jewish-Korean couple with whom he becomes strangely involved.
This is an intelligent response to the wave of YA romances with their love-triangles and their easy, instantaneous shifts from child to adult as none of our characters negotiate love, sex or adulthood without struggles or resistance. Erens keeps everything subtle rather than fevered or overblown, and the plot unrolls without a sense of predictability or inevitability.
The writing tells its story with clarity and precision, but with a coolness that I found a bit disconcerting as it held me at a distance from the story. So this is unnerving in a very intelligent way, but perhaps appeals more to the head than the heart.
'We sit on the benches and watch the buses unload, Cort, Voss and me.'
The novel starts with the narrator, Bruce Bennett-Jones, observing the new starts at his exclusive New Hampshire boarding school and and spotting beautiful Aviva Rossner, whose bump in her nose and kinky hair have her marked as 'one of those.' It becomes clear that our unreliable narrator is recounting the love story of Aviva and Seung Jung years after it happened and has to 'recreate' much of what happened. It is an interesting device - the narrator is shaping our views on the characters we care about but he is clearly a nasty piece of work and as readers we are constantly questioning how much to trust his depiction and analysis of events.
Erens conjures up a golden couple, steeped in the glamour of having regular sex and the importance of sex to the youth at Autumn Academy is clear - ''We experienced sex as psyche more than body ... as being anointed, saved, transfigured." This is a love story and a tragedy and some of it is brilliantly done. In the end I found it uneven and feel that 3.5 stars is fair.
The setting for this tragic tale is a US co-ed boarding prep school in year 1979-80. For some this is their graduation year before going off to college.
Our narrator ( Bruce) is a senior and together with others is assessing this years intake of pretty girls. He spots one ( Aviva) and rushes to be the knight in shining armour moving her trunk to her room. She flirts with him , he runs a mile but later catches up with her at the boathouse and gets carried away trying to grope her to the extent that she threatens to report him to the college authorities.
Cut to later when Bruce is reporting seeing Aviva with an old school colleague of his Seung – a Korean lad now a proctor ( read prefect) at the school .The relationship of Aviva and Seung flourishes somewhat openly – not desirable in a school where everything is subtle and bound by strict school rules. ( In this school the staff are most certainly aware that pupils explore the joys/sorrows of alcohol , drugs and each others bodies , but only interfere if school rules are infringed – such as being in the wrong place at the wrong time which can result in the ultimate sanction of expulsion)
To avoid spoilers by playing out the tale in full , I will comment that the characters and their families are tightly characterised – Bruce – with a bullying father trying to control his sons ( two) destinies , Aviva - insecure - Jewish – whose parents are divorcing ( Mother alcoholic) , Seung – a Number two son in a Korean family - who resent the effect of Aviva on their son and his work achievement and prospects..
This is all set against the general teenage angst of the pupils about sex , perpetual virginity , failure to consummate a relationship.
The tale – narrated by Bruce - from existing observation and information that he later obtains - of the relationship over the year rattles onto a tragic ( probably inevitable) ending.
Were there any villains or merely opportunistic characters? Certainly there were victims some of whom lose control of their destiny.
Reminded me of a possible adolescent version of Updike’ “ The Couples” where transgression of the rules results in dire consequences for all.
Overall a gripping , somewhat chilling tale in its inevitable tragic ending
In the beginning, it feels like hearing the narration of a movie and seeing something similar to an independent arthouse film, like a Sophia Coppola film or something like The Dreamers, Oslo 31 August, something visceral and non-showy.
The book is told from the perspective of Bruce, a fellow student but in no means close friend to either Seung or Aviva, two young characters exploring the emotional twangs of a want for sex. It is wholly a story about first time sex, which eludes to a somewhat predictable ending; as a story, it's just a bit thin. It's hard to learn anything from it, and nothing rather than the expected happens - it's like an incredibly well written almost teenage fiction.
However, what reclaims this book to be nearly great is it's execution. The writing style is excellent, and is primarily the thing that provoked me to keep reading - it actually doesn't get irksome to read at many points, because the words are so intelligent and eloquent that they are more so what makes the story. There are graphic sexual encounters described with perception; at no point are they cringeworthy or unrealistic. It's fantastically adult, amazingly written, if only the core story didn't let it down.
I'm glad to have read it, for it's great to know that there are writers out there that can write this well, however for me the story was quite uninspiring.
This slim volume contains a story that is perfect in the telling. There's nothing you don't need to know; there's no wasted superfluity. We get to see two young characters from their public and private perspective - we see what others are thinking about them and what they are themselves feeling - and we see a tragedy slowly developing from the difference between the public and the private. There's a recurring theme of an inability to follow through on desires, of a gulf between longing and fulfilment, of physical and emotional impotence.
It is a brilliantly written book in its conciseness. The narrative - partly reconstructed and related by another boy attending the college - is cold and detached, and we come to see why that is as the story develops.
It's a chilling little book, but very clever, and its shortness is a benefit - I'm not sure I'd want to read a longer novel with this level of detachment from its subjects.
on 19 August 2014
The year is 1979, our backdrop is Auburn Academy and our narrator is Bruce Bennett-Jones, one of the fellow students of Aviva Rossner and Seung Jung the academy's most talked and speculated about couples. After meeting Aviva, you could say Bruce had a bit of a thing for her, and he's not the only one with a fascination for Aviva and Seungs relationship. Bruce and his classmates assume that Aviva and Jeung are embroiled in a passionate relationship, what with how they're not shy about flaunting their relationship in front of others. But things would look very different from an outside perspective wouldn't it? The truth of the matter is drastically different, the truth is that when you're trying to discover who you are and understand themselves, there's going to be problems. Drugs, betrayal and shame from awkward encounters, this book has it all.
I'd heard a lot of great things about The Virgins, I first spotted it in my magazine shortly before the hardback came out and when I spotted it on Bookbridgr, I thought I'd give it a go. I kind of have mixed feelings about it to be honest.
I've seen it being described in reviews as similar to The Virgin Suicides, and I guess it is a bit, but for me this wasn't as engaging.
There where moments in the book where the storytelling was really good, but there where also points where I was slightly disinterested, particularly as I didn't really care for either Aviva nor Seung. Both of them had their problems, and I thought how these issues where described in the book was very well done, they where handled with sensitivity and respect, while not glamorizing any of it. One of them was almost hinted at, it wasn't directly said or mentioned but the wisp of it was there.
Bruce is a mixed bag, he's a bit of a douche with how sexist he is and the whole attempteed rape thing, but his narrative was well written , he was creepy partially because he's reminiscing from an older age and is still obsessed with these events, but he also had some intriguing insights, as well as alluding to upcoming events that intrigued you in to sticking with the book. He gave us loads of out of context moments he'd witnessed, and pretty much fabricated the rest of what we read according to what he thinks happened, and when he's telling us the story, he's looking back on what happened, which was an unusual aspect.
I'm not sure what it is, but for me the majority of the book was a tad bit dull, I was intrigued to see where it went but the overall feeling was that it was quite bland for me. Maybe I've been reading too much Fantasy lately? Everyone else seems to have loved it!
I've got to say, the awkward sexual situations where written incredibly well, I mean I was cringing for them and it was just so awkward to read you where like "oh maaaannn", but to be honest, it's probably one of the most realistic depictions instead of the usual where everything seems fantastic, although I could have done without certain lines!
Don't get me wrong, it wasn't like the book was terrible, the writing and the pacing where strong and beautiful, it was quite an almost dark, tragic, grim, realistic look at first love and teenage relationships, but I didn't have an emotional tie to the book or characters at all. Although it was fun trying to work out what was real and what was Bruce's imagination, he really was quite sinister and just....*shudder*.
on 22 May 2014
At the exclusive Auburn prep school in New Hampshire it’s not just about passing exams and getting into an equally exclusive college. It’s about who you are, where you’re from, your friends, your group, relationships and sex.
The novel centres around the relationship of Aviva, a Jewish girl and Seung, a Korean boy told through the eyes of Bruce, a boy who fancies himself in love with Aviva.
Seung and Aviva are the talk of Auburn, their attraction is all consuming and fascinating to students and staff alike; some disapprove and some dream of having the same lust-fuelled, idyllic relationship that in their minds Seung and Aviva have. Everyone is entirely unaware of the angst and unhappiness that is the reality of their relationship, of the confusion, self-doubt, guilt and shame that begins to take over their lives, for despite outward appearances Seung and Aviva remain virgins throughout their relationship. For Seung, a Korean upbringing means his relationship with the Jewish Aviva is not entirely approved of by his family who have very strong values and would like Seung to be the perfect Korean son, a fact he rebels against with his drug use. Aviva is the product of an unhappy family and has asked to go to Auburn to escape, to find happiness and revel in her newfound sexuality that never actually comes to fruition.
As the relationship continues and each blames themselves for their failure to consummate the relationship, not understanding the reasons and the confusion that mill around each others minds, events spiral out of control with devastating consequences.
Bruce as the voyeuristic narrator weaves together an excellent scenario, pieced together from his own observations and word of mouth, which conveys with precision the self doubt and loathing, fear, guilt and the urge to be grown up that most teens have. The beautifully descriptive writing from Pam Erens takes you right into the mindsets of not only Seung and Aviva but Bruce and their fellow students also and probably of every teen since time began. Everyone has their turmoil and everyone has a front behind which they hide. There is a sense of timelessness to this novel despite it being set in 1979, I’m positive every reader will recognise themselves or someone they knew in the characters. Not particularly likeable characters but nevertheless strong and well written. Bruce’s observations draw in the reader and although it is him filling in gaps and imagining, it is a very realistic and painful story he tells that will resonate with anyone.
Thanks to Netgalley and Hodder&Stoughton for the ARC of this book.
on 20 February 2014
1979, Auburn Academy, one of the best boarding schools on the east coast. There come the main heroes of this book, Aviva and Seung, and Bruce Bennett-Jones, the narrator, a voyeur, a dreamer. He will actively observe a pair of lovers, and most of the action will take place in the mind of the narrator.
Bruce immediately notices Aviva among all the girls coming to Auburn. She is pretty, her appearance emphasizes her sexuality, and Bruce meets her, feeling a certain attraction to Aviva, although later he’ll tell friends that she is not his type. Aviva herself will react to the narrator with restraint: she will talk about her younger brother, who writes her weekly funny letters, about her parents, seemingly successful family in which there is no love. Bruce will try to kiss Aviva, but she won’t succumb.
Aviva chooses another boy, Seung, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Korea, a classmate of Bruce in high school in upstate New York. He's tall for Asian, athletic, broad but modest, not too pretty, and because of his origin, feeling second-rate - particularly compared with Aviva.
Shortly after the start of classes Bruce for the second time tries to get closer to Aviva at the boat house. Bruce thinks that fragile Aviva wants sex, and all nearly ends as a rape. Already stripped Aviva rebuffs brazen Bruce, and about this episode, neither he nor she ever will tell a soul.
Seung and Aviva start dating in front of the whole school, making out, kissing, irritating some and delighting others. Pupils find them a strange but almost perfect couple, jealous of their closeness and happiness.
The Virgins is an artful novel. With his plot simplicity, it is not that simple. From a narrative point, here too there is a double bottom. The narrator of the book is always in the background, as if to say: look at this couple here, they are the protagonists, I am just spying. But it's a trick: even though the narrator is not an unreliable narrator in the conventional sense of the term, you’d hardly call him reliable. Bruce saw with his own eyes just what everyone had seen: kissing in public, the arrival of young lovers, a fatal ending. Everything else that happened behind closed doors is only imagination of the narrator, not dirty, on the contrary, quite romantic, accurate, sensitive, catching not body desires but torments of the soul. These kind of torments are Bruce’s own: devoid of pure love, at least he on the example of the others can see what love is. But do not forget that Bruce is not a sympathetic soul, he is a voyeur, envious, lustful creature who is excited about these fantasies - primarily on the failures of others.
His villainy is easy to overlook because he almost did not participant in the events, but in fact he is pure love destroyer, killer of an ideal.
The death of Seung is known already by the middle of the novel, but it will not stop the greedy absorption of the book pages. And if the story is not too original, it is written with feeling, without dipping into erotica.
The novel is written by a woman, but its narrator is a man. And I do not quite believe that Bruce could so accurately convey the feelings of Aviva. The scene in the bus where Aviva feels the excitement of jeans pressure when the bus jumps:
“The bus sends its vibrations through the vinyl banquette seats and into her thighs. She tenses experimentally, shifts position. Her jeans tighten against her crotch. She feels herself contract to a sharp, sparking point.”
or her feelings with Seung in bed - all these fantasies of Pamela Erens herself, but not the narrator’s.
The Virgins, perhaps, will not open new grounds, but it is masterfully written, enjoyable novel.
on 13 February 2014
I received my copy from the publisher through Nudge.
Bruce Bennett-Jones is starting his last year of high school at the Auburn Academy boarding school when he sees Aviva Rossner for the first time. It is the start of the 1979 - 80 school year and Bruce is interested in Aviva from the moment he watches her step off the bus.
Aviva isn’t for Bruce though. It doesn’t seem to take the girl anytime at all before she hooks up with Seung Jung who is a senior like Bruce. Almost from the start of the relationship, the school is buzzing with talk of Aviva and Seung; the young couple seems so close, so intimate, so unashamedly attracted to each other that the other pupils can’t help imagine their sexual adventures.
It is only after everything goes wrong with the most horrible of consequences that Bruce comes to realise that maybe things weren’t as clear cut as he thought. And that realisation affects Bruce so strongly that years later, he feels the need to share Aviva and Seung’s story with the world.
This is a book about teenagers and the volatility of their feelings. The story is told by Bruce Bennett-Jones a rather typical high school senior. His hormones play havoc with him, girls occupy his mind and sex intrigues him. Aviva attracts his attention the moment she steps off the bus and he is quick to introduce himself to her and help her with her luggage, even quicker to kiss her once they get to her dorm room. And then he flees, afraid of the consequences if he’s caught in the girls’ dorm.
That must be the moment he ruined things for himself. Although his obsession with Aviva only grows over the rest of the school year, Bruce lost her as soon as he found her. The next thing Bruce knows Aviva and Seung are a couple, flaunting their relationship and sexuality for all to see.
When I say that Bruce is the one telling this story I have to point out that he doesn’t have a lot of the facts, something he freely admits.
“I’m inventing Seung, too, of course. It’s the least I can do for him.”
Bruce plays only a small role in the drama that is Seung and Aviva’s relationship. A small role with devastating consequences. Because Bruce doesn’t actually know a lot about Seung and even less about Aviva we never know if what he tells us about them and their relationship is true or imagined. This made the story feel a bit contrived for me. I never got a real impression of any of the characters in this book.
“I’ve imagined every part of her: her body, her thoughts, the conversations she has with her friends, with her brother and father and mother, the things she says to him, Seung, the books she reads and the fantasies that make her touch herself.”
Aviva and Seung remain vague because the reader knows that the narrator is sharing what he imagines may have happened without knowing whether or not he’s right. And because he never finds out if his assumptions are correct, the reader can’t be sure either. And we don’t get a much better picture of Bruce himself. While he doesn’t try to make himself look good or nice - quite the opposite actually - we can’t be sure if he really was a rather nasty young man or if it is his guilty conscience talking. The result, for me, was a rather intriguing read that left me a bit dissatisfied by the time I turned the last page.
What this book does really well, on the other hand, is illustrate the workings of a teenage mind. The extremes of emotion youngsters go through in those few years are vividly painted and all too recognisable. That sense of all or nothing, the constant fear of life passing you by, that you are missing out on some secret others have already discovered and the ease with which you can convince yourself that there is something fatally wrong with you, are the very powerful elements around which this story is constructed. The sparse but beautiful language only adds to the illusion of being lost in a teenage mind.
For me this was a beautiful and intriguing read that didn’t quite hit the spot. Too much relied on my ability to believe in the imagination of a narrator who doesn’t have a lot of the facts and isn’t all that sympathetic. Having said that, the author’s voice did strike a chord with me and I will almost certainly be on the lookout for more of her work.