Losing It by Emma Rathbone

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When was the last time you wanted something? Wanted it so badly that the very grip of your wanting seemed to prevent you from actually getting it because you were throwing things off with your need, holding too hard, jarring things out of joint?

Julia Greenfield, the 26-year-old narrator of Losing It, poses these questions to the reader in this funny and insightful novel from The New Yorker contributor Emma Rathbone. Julia never got around to losing her virginity and now, losing it is her obsession, occupying “about 99% of [her] thought traffic.” Even though the “it” refers to her virginity, the questions apply to other areas of her life as well.

When we first meet Julia, she is in a dead-end job, detached, and miserable, cataloging the girls she knew in high school and how, one by one, they developed relationships and found intimacy while Julia remained a virgin. When Julia meets people, she is so focused on her still intact virginity that she immediately pictures what they would be like in bed. It’s not that Julia never had the option: she came close with a guy in high school, but let the opportunity pass her by because she “figured this was just the tip of the iceberg. That this was surely the beginning of many similar escapades. That I could afford to decline, if only to make the next proposition all the more delicious.” Julia now considers this to be the moment her life took a grave turn, setting her on a course for unhappiness: “I began to think of that moment, when I pushed away from him and swam to the other side of the pool, as being where my fate changed, where I branched off and started living a parallel life that wasn’t supposed to be.”

In an attempt to course correct, Julia quits her dreary job in the suburbs of Washington DC and decides to move home with her parents in Arizona to figure things out—a plan that is derailed when her mother tells her that she and her father are renting out their house and spending the summer in Costa Rica to work on their marriage (Julia had not noticed they were having trouble). So Julia opts for Plan B: spending the summer with her unmarried aunt Vivienne at her home in Durham, North Carolina. Julia views the summer in Durham as potential salvation and a place to start fresh. “I could do whatever I wanted, and it wouldn’t be attached to the chain of small failures I’d managed to accrue in Arlington.” Dryly, she admits, “the new plan had the added incentive of basically being my only option.”

This summer, she determines, will be the summer she finally loses “it”, with the hopes that the rest of her life will subsequently come together. Julia approaches her mission with all the focus she used to apply to her swimming career, which she abandoned midway through college after realizing she’d never be good enough, seemingly lacking the natural talent to truly excel.

Rathbone writes with pinpointed accuracy the feelings of discontent and despair that can arise from feeling lost or stuck in life. When Julia arrives at her aunt’s house, she experiences a bit of seasickness at her precarious situation. She tries “not to feel like a rope had been cut, and I could only tell it had ever been there by the new sense of drifting.”

Emma Rathbone

Emma Rathbone

In Durham, Julia takes an administrative job at a law firm, and here is just one example of where Rathbone’s humor shines as she depicts the banalities of a menial job and the personalities that populate an office. It’s sitcom-funny when Julia tries to converse with an elderly woman she fears may be dead, until her eyes pop open wide unexpectedly and her fellow office workers scurry away. In this bleak landscape, where she counts down the hours by rearranging paper clips, one potential suitor does appear. Other prospective mates also surface in Durham, some more positive than others.

Julia is so preoccupied with her stalled situation in life that it causes her to miss the natural opportunities for connection that do arise, aside from the sexual kind. Rathbone writes: “to want something so badly was to jam yourself into the wrong places, gum up the works, send clanging vibrations into the cosmos. But how can you step back and affect nonchalance?”

Julia’s relationship with her aunt Vivienne, whom she soon learns is also a virgin, accentuates the cracks already apparent in Julia’s personality. Julia is so fearful of becoming like her aunt that she snoops and meddles in an effort to understand how her aunt’s life took that path. Driven by fear and desperation, Julia’s already questionable decision-making skills grow worse.

Rathbone imbues Julia with such warmth and humor, and writes her with such affection, you can’t help but root for the misguided character even when you want to shake her. This is a testament to Rathbone’s writing and Julia’s voice, because some of Julia’s choices are really bad – hooking up with the son of your aunt’s deceased friend at the memorial service in broad daylight in front of everyone-bad; or jeopardizing someone’s dreams bad.

Through Julia, Rathbone delivers some truths that could keep anyone awake at night: “The train could pass. Disappear into the distance.” Julia realizes, like many others before her, that many of the difficulties that arise in life (particularly post-school) cannot be solved by more swim strokes or more practice. Sometimes, the sobering reality is despite how hard you try or badly you want something, it can be really, really hard to get, and loneliness is a part of life. Julia feels something she said she only glimpsed as a teenager:

actual, corrosive, adult loneliness; a crystalline, desolate feeling of abandonment… And there was no amount of practicing or trials or laps, no strengthening program to make it better. That helplessness added to my anger. This is a strain of it, I thought, that no one tells you about, this is a strain of being an adult. Desperation seeps into your bones as you lie alone in bed at night, wide-awake.

The intimacy Julia witnesses in others exacerbates her own loneliness further. Reflecting on the relationship of a friend from college, she recalls: “At one point I saw him lift her hand and place it in his palm and study it like it was a precious jewel. I’d never had anything like that. I’d graduated from high school, gone to college, graduated, gotten my first job, and I’d still never had anything like that. Not even close.” She continues, later: “Sometimes, thinking about those two…I felt a sense of loss in my own life so drastic it was like the wind was knocked out of me.” Rathbone nails these reflections of Julia’s that could veer toward heartbreaking if she didn’t relay them with such precision and an easy, frank touch. “Everyone else’s happiness seemed like a personal affront… What winds were pushing them and why weren’t they pushing me? How did they get lives with all the proper moving parts?” Julia may be a little self-involved, but her feelings are understandable. She considers the slow erosion of a person if things continue this way: “There were car wrecks, tornadoes, foreclosures, but what about the disasters that could be visited on a person slowly, incrementally, over the course of decades?” The humorous moments and Julia’s strong, engaging voice prevent her from being too weighed down in self-pity.

Even for those who have, through some chain of events or another, lost their virginity, there is a lot to relate to in Julia. It’s easy to slip into self-absorption when it feels as though nothing is going your way. But if you pull yourself out of the situation a little (no pun intended?), sometimes life deposits you in unexpected and pleasant places. Scenes in the book reveal how different the texture of a moment can be when you allow it to unfold, even if, as Julia continues to learn, some agency is required.

Losing It is a terrific and funny meditation on the deep pockets of discontent in life, growing up, and seizing the right opportunities for connection when you can.

Courtney Allison is a former book publicist and has written for Newsday, Kirkus Reviews, The L Magazine, and more. She lives in Brooklyn. More from this author →