In fairytales, most of our heroes are orphans. Without parents to guide or hamper them, they’re left to slay dragons and giants on their own. In literature, there is another place for these parentless adventures: the boarding school. The teenage years—that horrible purgatory between childhood and adulthood—is a dark and confusing time, a time when emotions threaten to simmer up and boil over. At boarding school, teens are left to deal with this tumult—and with each other—on their own.
In Pamela Erens’s evocative second book, The Virgins, boarding school is a microcosm of society, with its strict social norms that frown on blatant sexuality. It is at their elite boarding school in the late 1970s that Aviva Rossner and Seung Jung get their first taste of love and sex, but their passion for each other is not as natural and carefree as everyone assumes—and everyone assumes a lot. Their classmate Bruce Bennett-Jones, in particular, watches the couple with a jealous, prurient eye.
Bruce isn’t the only one watching Aviva and Seung. Everyone does, even the teachers. From the outside, the couple’s connection is enviable. They are two lovers in a world of their own; the sexual energy between them is palpable. Everyone wants what they have. Sex, in the minds of these teenagers, is much more than the physical act. “We beginners experienced sex as psyche more than body, as vulnerability and power, exposure and flight, being anointed, saved, transfigured,” Bruce says. “To fail at it—to do it wrong—was to experience (and please do not smirk; try to remember what it was like once upon a time) the death of one’s ideal soul.”
What Bruce pieces together later is that Aviva and Seung’s union wasn’t as blissful and sex-fueled as everyone had imagined. Despite valiant efforts on both sides, they were not able to consummate their relationship. Their sexual dysfunction eventually drives a wedge between them, leaving Seung emasculated and Aviva humiliated. Their “ideal souls” begin to wither away.
The Virgins isn’t a story about first love and the inevitable heartbreak that follows. It’s not really about sexual awakening, either, despite all the urgency, the panting and groping that goes on. It is a careful examination of unfulfilled desire. Desire, in The Virgins, is a transitive verb. For our narrator, the object of his yearnings is Aviva Rossner. He doesn’t love her—he wants her. His desire for her is strong and consuming, sometimes vulgar. Aviva wants nothing more than to be desired—by Seung. The tricky part is to make our desires match up, to desire—and be desired by—the right person.
Like Ian McEwan’s Atonement and James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, The Virgins depicts a relationship through the eyes of an obsessive outsider. Bruce is putting Aviva and Seung’s story together “to make sense of things.” Bruce doesn’t know what really happened, and he doesn’t let the reader forget it. He takes bits and pieces from his understanding of reality and attempts to stitch them all together. The more he “amplified and embroidered,” the closer he gets to understanding the truth.
Telling Aviva and Seung’s story is his way of reconciling his own role in the tragedy that soon unfolds. It turns out that Bruce is not just an innocent bystander or wide-eyed observer; he plays a key role in the events that transpire. “I began to see my tale as a kind of restitution, the only type of penance I could then see to pay Aviva,” he says. “An attempt to understand her—or rather, to allow her complexity to grow beyond the possibility of my understanding.” It can be frustrating, as a reader, to constantly be reminded that we can never know what really happened. It can start to feel like the literary equivalent of ending the story with, “And then I woke up and realized it was all a dream.” But here, this narrative style serves as a metaphor for our own unfulfilled desires: we can watch but never truly know. We’re always on the outside looking in.
The male point of view is uneven in places—every once in a while Bruce has an uncharacteristic insight into female psychology and sexuality. But he is hardly a sensitive quiet type who wants to steal Aviva from Seung because he believes he really gets her. Most of the time, our un-trusty narrator reveals himself as a douchebag, so fueled by hormones and his own ego that he stops just short of raping her in the novel’s opening pages.
What The Virgins teaches us is that ultimately, we are alone with our desires. We can’t help whom we desire. If the object of our desire doesn’t return our affections, we can never find fulfillment. Desiring someone who desires you back in the same exact way feels rare and almost hopeless. This is The Virgins’ greatest lesson, one of life’s great tragedies: What’s keeping us from fulfillment isn’t our teachers, the rules, or our judgmental, restrictive society. It’s ourselves.