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 classmates – particularly Bruce Bennett-Jones – the 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 the once-embittered, now repentant Bruce. With unflinching honesty and breathtaking prose, Pamela Erens brings a fresh voice to the tradition of the great boarding school novel.
Read a Q&A with the author HERE.
"If only it were that simple for the main characters in The Virgins, a novel by Pamela Erens. Aviva is Jewish and from Chicago, while Seung is Korean-American from Jersey. They meet and strike up a relationship at an elite boarding school in New England. Though not exactly outcasts, Aviva and Seung do make an impression on their mostly WASPy peers circa 1979-1980. She is perhaps a little too flashy for the preppy style of the day, adorned with heavy makeup, hoop earrings, and big hair. He is a seemingly Asian Superman who nobody can quite put a finger on.
Sociologist Erving Goffman describes 'front stage behavior' as the image we like to present in public, and 'back stage behavior' as who we really are when at home or in a private setting. For Aviva and Seung, their front stage behavior consists of overt public displays of affection duly-noted by impressionable students and faculty. To our narrator, Bruce Bennett-Jones, this affection means that these two are having great sex -- while he's not. He wants in, both literally and figuratively. But what he doesn't know is that Aviva's parents are going through a nasty separation/divorce that threatens her home, her family, and her tuition, and that all her flash may just be a cover for deep insecurities. And he doesn't know that Seung is the number two son in a very traditional Korean family, who nevertheless is expected to go to Harvard or bust. And a Jewish girl from Chicago is simply out of the question. Also, he has a little too much interest in recreational drugs. And the wild sex they're supposed to be having? That may be illusory as well -- even tragic as it happens.
I came upon this novel after reading John Irving's stellar review in the New York Times. He compares the book to A Separate Peace by John Knowles. If you read that years ago in Lit class and loved it as much as I did, then I urge you to read The Virgins as well. I would also compare the novel to John Nichols' The Sterile Cuckoo. Both were adapted for film and I hope The Virgins shares the same fate. This is some of the strongest literary fiction I've read in a while, and for that I congratulate the author, Pamela Erens. "