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 that of 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 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.
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"In this radical garden we could reinvent ourselves; we could seed the adults we would become. Gnaritas et Patientia read our school motto-- Knowledge and Patience-- but the knowledge we wanted was knowledge of the body: how to enlarge it through pleasure and how to make it disappear." (p. 42)
Pamela Eren's coming-of-age novel on a prep school coed campus (Phillips Exeter in New Hampshire, thinly veiled as "Auburn Academy") shimmers as a masterpiece newly hatched. The prose sparkles and brings characters and scenes to life in brilliant color. At the same time, it disturbs. And it depicts and comments on tensions in class, privilege, education, leisure, gender, sexual coming of age, and multi-cultural America.
I don't want to give away too much here. So I'll highlight with quotes, a few themes, and context. Overall, I found this novel first-rate and gripping.
A Korean high school senior boy from New Jersey, Seung, hooks up with a Jewish first-year girl, Aviva, from the Chicago suburbs. They flaunt their relationship, generating both resentment of how they seem to flout the school's rules and get away with it, and imaginative flights of jealousy in the eyes of some. The jealous include the story's narrator, Bruce Bennett-Jones, who is a peer of Seung's from the same New Jersey town - though Bruce is from the white, affluent side of the tracks.
Bruce meets Aviva before Seung does. He helps her carry her bags up to her room, arriving swiftly at this:
"She's a small girl and moving close to her I feel, for once, that I have some size. The waxy collar of her jacket prickles the hair on my forearms. Her neck is damp and slippery, and her mouth, as I kiss it, tastes like cigarettes and chocolate. I picture her smoking rapidly, furtively, in the little bathroom on the plane. Her hair smells a little rancid. The perfume she put on this morning has moldered with sweat and travel and now gives off an odor of decayed pear.
"Don't open your mouth so wide," she says.
"My feet are sweating in my sneakers. My crotch itches. My scalp itches. She drops her hand and I see that her fingernails are painted a pearly pink.
"She tilts her head against the door and laughs. Her thick curls swarm. I could bite her exposed neck. I do not want to get caught, sent home. I see my father's hand raised up to hit me and know I'm about to step off a great ledge. In a panic I reach for the doorknob, startling Aviva. I open the door carefully, listen to the stairs and hallways. (p. 13-14)
Later, Aviva and Seung in one of many public scenes:
"He rinses dishes, loads the two huge dishwashers, wipes down counters, mops the floor. When Mr. Carlton, the dining hall supervisor, isn't there, Aviva follows the conveyor belt into the kitchen and visits. She likes to watch Seung's muscular arms plunged deep into the sudsy yellow water. The femininity of the task throws his masculinity into relief. It is the same with his skin-- satin, hairless-- which only sculpts his swollen biceps and thick wrists more nakedly. His arms, so capable, so bent to his duty, stir her profoundly. She slips behind him and wraps her own around his waist. It pleases her to think that the other kitchen lackeys may grumble at this exhibitionism. (p. 95)
At one point, Seung brings Aviva home to his family:
"At dinner Seung coaxes her to try kimchi, the traditional Korean cabbage pickled in hot spices and garlic. "It's very hot," he warns. The family laughs as she cuts a small piece and puts it in her mouth. They are waiting for the inevitable explosion of alarm and disgust. Then they can laugh some more, at the mysterious things that separate some peoples from others. But she loves the cabbage, the heat. She asks Seung to serve her more. The family cries out with amusement and delight, urges her to have a third helping, a fourth.
"You are an honorary Korean!" cries Mr. Jung. "You are one of us!" He is a bit drunk. Seung shakes his head at her: Don't be fooled.
"Thoroughly pleased with their guest, this little white girl, Jewish even, they insist on trying to teach her some Korean words. Bap is rice; cha is tea. Chaz is Seung's hyeong, or elder brother. She can't make the right sounds. The words have a bark, a snap, in their mouths that she can't re-create. Chaz tells his parents to stop tormenting the poor girl.
"Aviva's getting tired," Seung agrees. (p. 74-5)
Later, on their way to visit her family in Chicago, they get sidetracked marking time in New York City before a plane they're meant to catch. The scrape they get into is enigmatic of what's to come:
"After an hour or so, when the two teenagers have answered the same questions over and over, have allowed their bags to be searched, have shown Aviva's bankbook and her father's credit card and Seung's driver's license, have offered to get Aviva's mother or father on the phone, it occurs to Aviva that these three men may detain them long enough to make them miss their plane. She shows the men their tickets again, explains their need to depart. Seung says very little. He understands that the part of an Asian boy is to be silent. Nothing he can say will instill trust. And Aviva begins to understand that the door of the room will not open until these men wish it to open. For the first time she grows uneasy. If she were older and less convinced that the world works along rational and reasonable principles, she might think to make more of the fact that her uncle is a lawyer at a large firm in Chicago. She might hint at her surprise that Mr. Ianetti would be suspicious of two students who attend the prestigious Auburn Academy. She might mention some of her family's expensive vacations: Switzerland, the Galapagos, Mexico." (p. 115)
Eventually, trouble mounts at Auburn. And Bruce the jealous narrator suggests an emerging crisis and reveals the social ethos in the school as an institution of society:
"Then a silence fell and the faculty members looked down at their notes or off into the distance, and, according to the ex-lacrosse player, everyone knew what everyone was thinking, which was that Aviva Rossner and Seung Jung had been flouting the rules for months, had been violating Auburn's ethic of healthy moderation by spilling sex into every cranny of the school, and that, to maintain the proper separation between adult and child, decency and decadence, somehow it had to come to a stop." (p. 219)
I was spellbound by this novel. And let me clarify, I typically am not one to seek out a coming-of-age novel, nor teenage sex tales. Pamela Erens packs a big story into one year at a prep school - about growing up amid changing colors and tensions of elite society.
Let me add that I do not know personally the world of Phillips Exeter and other boarding schools like it. If you know it, you'll judge for yourself how real it is. I will take John Irving's testimonial in his New York Times review (8/9/2013) where he - a 1961 alum - wrote, "Pamela Erens and her monstrous Bennett-Jones have told a devastating story. `The Virgins' is a brutal book, but it's flawlessly executed and irrefutably true." Further, the story resonates on many notes in the a recent sociological ethnography of class and higher education by C.J. Churchill and G. E. Levy, The Enigmatic Academy: Class, Bureaucracy, and Religion in American Education (2011).
I recommend The Virgins enthusiastically with five stars. On top of that, the Audible.com performance is superb.