The gulf between expectation and experience makes the loss of virginity one of the most literary of life’s rites of passage. Not having done ‘it’ is as ineffably character-defining – or damning – at school as being a prefect or a star of the sports team. But once it’s gone, bemused detachment makes the agonies of a past self seem unreal. In The Virgins, Pamela Erens’s approach is more sincere than funny. Before plunging us into the sweaty intensity of first love, the grown-up narrator asks, ‘Please do not smirk; try to remember what it was like, once upon a time.’ The school is reportedly based on the one Erens, former editor of Glamour, attended – an elite East Coast institution that counts John Irving and John Knowles as alumni. This unhealthy Eden is a claustrophobic hothouse where drugs are rife and authority figures absent.
Under watchful eyes, new girl Aviva – kohl smudged, jumpers slinky, nose a little too Jewish and eating habits increasingly frugal – falls in love with Seung, a quiet Korean-American on the swimming team who likes to look up the chemical compounds of the drugs he takes and fashions love