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The Virgins

3.52  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,155 Ratings  ·  202 Reviews
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 agai ...more
Paperback, 281 pages
Published August 6th 2013 by Tin House Books
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37th out of 93 books — 59 voters
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Stacia (the 2010 club)
The all-too-brief moments of storytelling genius which stirred my curiosity were not enough to keep me from the realization that I did not like the main characters which the story revolved around.

Maybe I'm too young to appreciate this coming-of-age tale in the the 1970's. Oh wait; scratch that. I love the idea of mid-to-late century boarding school stories. In fact, I've been trying to seek out anything from this category which looks appealing. It's really too bad that when I find a rare book o
Apr 07, 2013 Roxane rated it really liked it
Ominous and sensual and very gripping. Very reminiscent of Salter and the author includes a clever nod to him within the novel.
Review originally published at Learn This Phrase.

Set at Auburn, an American pre-college prepatory school in the late 1970s/early 1980s, The Virgins tells a familiar tale of first love and sexual awakening. The narrative, however, has an unusual structure: the story of the romance between students Aviva and Seung is told from the perspective of a third, largely uninvolved, character, Bruce. Bruce is privy only to occasional, out-of-context snippets of the couple's relationship, but around these s
Nancy Freund
Mar 07, 2014 Nancy Freund rated it it was amazing
Wow. I actually uploaded a video review to YouTube about this one and that's the single most important word I used: wow. In that review I focused primarily on Erens' handling of a "participating omniscient narrator" which surely has a literary term I've forgotten, but she uses the character of Bruce Bennett-Jones beautifully, weaving him into the actual plot-line such that he fully owns his omniscience and his role in the story of the two main characters he is observing, Seung and Aviva. I'd say ...more
Rebecca Foster
John Irving is among the many big names who have praised Pamela Erens’s latest, an emotionally complex and darkly gripping love story set among teenagers at an exclusive New England boarding school.

As the novel opens in 1979, sixteen-year-old Aviva Rossner has just made her way from Chicago to New Hampshire to begin her junior year at Auburn Academy. Her parents are getting a divorce, and her sense of confusion and dislocation prompts her to start changing her image. No longer just some mousy Je
Sep 20, 2014 Joodith rated it did not like it
Auburn Academy, in 1979 - 80, an elite boarding school for spoilt rich kids, is the setting for this novel which concerns the fumblings and gropings of two teenagers obsessed with themselves and each other.

Aviva, a self-absorbed and insecure Jewish girl, seeks attention by wearing ostentatious gold jewellery and dressing differently from her peers; she believes if she is not noticed she will just fade away. Seung, the number two Korean son, raised to be honourable, obedient and studious is a "pr
Claudia Putnam
Jan 12, 2014 Claudia Putnam rated it it was amazing
Boarding-schools do work wonderfully as cozies, both in art and in real life. The setting and cast are limited, so whatever goes on is going to be intensified. I wrote in some tenth-grade essay that my prep school—the same one Erens’s Auburn Academy is based on—took the general ecstasies and woes of adolescence and magnified them almost beyond bearing. I also believed, and still believe, that because we were away from home, the prep school environment, in ways that may have been paradoxically st ...more
Sophfronia Scott
Sep 05, 2013 Sophfronia Scott rated it really liked it
I review The Virgins in the new issue of Gently Read Literature (, here's a sample. And if you like it, please subscribe and check out the entire issue:

"Pamela Erens’s novel The Virgins also takes place at a boarding school, Auburn Academy, and she casts it with a number of characters with whom a reader might identify. I will admit, though, my experience with A Separate Peace was working on me as I read it. Even before we learn the name of Bruce Bennett-J
Mar 14, 2014 Debbie rated it it was amazing
Shelves: highlyrecommend
This is not another boarding school book. No PREP. It is far more accomplished, far deeper than that.
You know when you read Pamela Erens, you are going to get energetic writing, flawless language… and more. This is a sophisticated look at sexuality, coming of age and boarding life. It is also an excellent reflection upon just what intimacy is, and what interferes with it. And how perception of others and ourselves impacts our choices in life changing ways.
I love how bold this writer is. I reall
Jun 06, 2014 Avital rated it it was amazing
Several months after reading it, it still holds up as one of the books that most impressed me this year. The book has been written patiently, you can feel that, and there's something solid, rather muscular about its strength.
The choices are very interesting. I read a review in the NYT before reading it and I gathered that the narrator is a nasty creature, but he is so layered, that he is far from incarnating evil. His story made me feel for him.
I compared the ambiance to my own situation durin
Sian Lile-Pastore
Apr 26, 2014 Sian Lile-Pastore rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
an enjoyable, easy read told from the point of view of a slightly odd unreliable narrator. who doesn't love a coming of age novel set in a boarding school where everyone is obsessed with sex and relationships? no one that's who. plus it's 1979? let's go!

as lots of people have said on here, it is reminiscent of The Virgin Suicides and like 'suicides' we never really get to know any of the characters as they are observed and obsessed about from afar, and it's all about the surface and what you thi
Feb 03, 2014 Maciek rated it liked it
I learned about this novel from one of the Best Books of 2013 lists, published in The Daily Beast or some other Huffington Post. I spotted it among some other books that I knew, and it caught my eye - a novel set in an elite boarding school at the end of the 70's, with a bizarre love triangle - two students pursue the same girl, but only one wins her affection - the other becomes the narrator of The Virgins, Pamela Erens's second novel.

Bruce Bennett-Jones, the said narrator, is decidedly an unpl
Nicole Wolverton
Jul 13, 2013 Nicole Wolverton rated it really liked it
There are many things to like about The Virgins. First and foremost, though, is that this is a story that is, most likely, a complete fabrication. I mean that in more than a Well, gee, Nicole, it's fiction kind of a way. The narrator--Bruce Bennett-Jones--is the narrator, and he's sort of a by-stander in the story of of Aviva Rossner and Seung Jung, supposedly the most sexually obvious couple at an elite boarding school for high schoolers. It should also be noted that Bennett-Jones is a complete ...more
Jul 29, 2015 Terri rated it it was ok
Ugh. I know high school and early college years are full of drama for a lot of people, but wow. This book is super dramatic, and I find pretty much everyone in it despicable or at least lacking in many truly redeeming qualities. I don't have to like a book's characters to like the book, but I do want to believe the characters, to believe that they are real and have dimension. Everyone here is a grotesque, and I'm just not impressed. I get why the author makes some of her choices, particularly wi ...more
Sep 23, 2013 Tara rated it really liked it
4 1/2 stars. When I think of Erens writing, I envision her with a miniature wand in hand, pen-size. Her sentences are flawless, her observations of human behavior dead on. I applaud her too for creating a Korean character who is not just a stick figure. A brutally honest look at young love, racism, cultural pressure, and societal hypocrisy. A bonus also to read a story set in the time I grew up, so I enjoyed all the details that set it in that time period. I look forward to Erens' next book.
Jul 29, 2013 Mary rated it it was amazing
Such a wonderful read! I've been eagerly awaiting the next book by Pamela Erens and this one did not disappoint! So worth the wait. I stayed up late to finish it because I could not put it down. The narrative voice is interesting and critically important to the telling of the story...and becomes ever more so as the book wends toward its fascinating and deeply satisfying finish. What a read! I highly recommend it.
Aug 18, 2013 Clifford rated it it was amazing
Shelves: novels
The Virgins: A Novel by Pamela Erens

I loved Pamela Erens's first novel, The Understory. Like that book, her new novel is beautifully written. Every sentence is elegant and perfect, and they all flow together to create a lush whole.

See my full review at Perpetual Folly: 2013 Reading: The Virgins by Pamela Erens
Jul 20, 2015 M rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: best-of-2015
One of the best books I have read all year - for a few years, possibly. The writing is evocative, sparing, but also gives us a lot of detail. The characters, the world, and the setting, are beautifully drawn, and whilst I didn't necessarily 'like' anyone (I never need to), I cared about them all, and the story really, really moved me. There were so many things going on - so many themes and strands, and it's a credit to the skill of the author that she didn't feel the need to explain every single ...more
Larry Hoffer
Aug 28, 2013 Larry Hoffer rated it really liked it
Do you remember what it was like when you thought you could tell everything about a person simply by looking at them? (Maybe you still think this.) More specifically, do you remember in high school thinking that the so-called "popular" crowd must have had it made, that the couples you saw together all the time might be together forever, that the "smart kids" had it easier than anyone else?

Pamela Erens' new novel The Virgins seeks to capture that time, those feelings. It's 1979 at Auburn Academy,
Nov 11, 2013 Michael rated it it was amazing
„She is terrified of going somewhere new simply to end up invisible again.“

Bruce Bennett-Jones erzählt die Geschichte seiner neuen Mitschülerin Aviva Rossner und deren Beziehung zu Seung Jung, der ebenfalls die Auburn Academy besucht, eine elitäre boarding school an der Ostküste. Die beiden Außenseiter, er koreanischer, sie jüdischer Herkunft, entdecken miteinander die Sexualität und vergessen in ihrer Verliebtheit, wie die öffentliche Zurschaustellung ihrer Gefühle bei Lehrern und Studenten ni
Aug 18, 2013 christa rated it it was amazing
The It Couple of a certain east coast prep school oozes with sex. And they’re so cool about it. Sure there are other couples, but Aviva and Seung are the ones to watch. Her: a new girl with a purple bra and a limitless credit card: Him, a swimmer with a fondness for chemistry both in the classroom and when he’s imagining THC as shaped like a pull toy.

One guy is so taken with Aviva that all he can do is watch. And imagine. And jerk the turkey. Bruce Bennett-Jones plays narrator/voyeur/fan fictio
Maya Lang
Dec 27, 2013 Maya Lang rated it it was amazing
A flawless, lush, mesmerizing novel. There is so much that Erens captures so beautifully: boarding school life, adolescence, sexuality, obsession. And I should say that I'm normally skeptical of boarding school novels, having actually went to one. This one nails it. There's a certain ineffable quality to being a boarder, sadder and less glamorous than people think, that has to do with the strangeness of going through adolescence without adults. I honestly didn't think a novel would ever be able ...more
V.S. Kemanis
Jun 23, 2013 V.S. Kemanis rated it liked it
I received an advance copy of this novel at the Book Expo. Perhaps my expectations were raised by the editor's comment up front that "The Virgins marks Pamela Erens's arrival as an unignorable force in American writing." I was somewhat disappointed, but hasten to add that teenage sexual awakening is not my usual choice of theme in literature. Still, I was open to the possibility of new insight or depth of characterization on this theme and did not find it. The misconnections between the young co ...more
Oct 26, 2014 Sara rated it it was amazing
How can I begin to say how I LOVE THIS BOOK: Masterfully written, lush searing prose, a brilliant study in structure and point of view, this is not another boarding school tale but something else- far more urgent, complex, universal. The book is so taut it does not carry a single word of fat, making it impossible to put down, the tension propelling the story to the final stirring page- and leaving the reader with so much to think about long after. An essential, extraordinary novel.
Green Gables
Aug 11, 2013 Green Gables rated it liked it
Spoiler Alert

I was truly horrified at how glib the narrator was about the events he had caused. Was he truly that clueless or did he truly feel like the culprits were "us" or "we"? His lack of responsibility and complete ignorance that he take the blame ruined the book for me. Maybe I'm of a simple mind in that I need evil to be punished -or at least feel remorse.

Plus, I did not feel that this irony was the author's intent. The narrator was basically telling events from his past rather reflecti
Roy Kesey
Nov 23, 2013 Roy Kesey rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed this. Absolutely compelling throughout. Great character work. A wonderfully strong meditation on what we do to others--and to ourselves--when we take it upon ourselves to tell their story.

Some favored bits:

"He can see the suffering of each fellow creature like a brilliant steam rising from the pores, a nimbus terrible and exquisite at once. It’s the suffering that makes each person beautiful, like a bracelet, like a cage."

"There is an inside and an outside to thoughts, and to b
Nov 21, 2015 Themis rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I gave it three stars because it's not my kind of novel. However, it's well written enough that you start believing the unreliable narrator, Bruce. From the beginning of the story I had this sick feeling about him. Not sure if that was the intention of the author. Maybe because he seems like a voyer.
Jan 15, 2016 Juushika rated it liked it
Shelves: status-borrowed
At a boarding school in the 1970s, the intense romance between two misfit students, narrated here by a classmate, grows into a school-wide controversy. The Virgins is an intentional, effective unreliable narrative whose construction is frequently the book's most successful aspect. So little happens, and yet it remains compelling--thanks to the short chapters, the anticipation of a tragic end, and the biased view we have of the characters. But in retrospect, it leaves me wanting. All it really of ...more
Jan 02, 2014 Susan rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Aug 23, 2013 Kathy rated it it was amazing
I'm actually at a loss for words. This is just...brilliant work. Now I can read that John Irving review.
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Pamela Erens’s third novel, Eleven Hours, was published by Tin House Books in May 2016 and Atlantic Books (UK) in July 2016.

Her second novel, The Virgins (Tin House, 2013), was a New York Times Book Review and Chicago Tribune Editors' Choice and was named a Best Book of 2013 by The New Yorker, The New Republic, Library Journal and Salon. The novel was a finalist for the John Gardner Book Award for
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