Sometimes the hype kills the book before you read it. When the blurb-o-sphere goes into to hyperdrive with superlatives, it really does have an impact. Comparisons to A Separate Peace, or Ethan Frome (and I saw one mention of Catcher in the Rye) do not help a mere mortals compare favorably against the masters.
That is what happened to me here with Pamela Eren's The Virgins. Erens provides a thoughtful, decently well-written and certainly heartfelt rendition of the classic coming-of-age novel...awkward social connections, ambitious but cautious sexual initiation, teenage angst, and the awful, terrible, and damaging jealousies and social backbiting of the elite New England private school milieu.
Narrated by the once jealous, now guilt-ridden blue blood Bruce Bennett-Jones, the story traces the public and private conduct of the relationship between two "non-traditional" admits to the school, Korean-American guy Seung Jung and Jewish girl Aviva Rossner. I say public and private because what Erens does best is bring home the huge difference between what a relationship may actually be (private) with what the rumor mill would like it to be or thinks it should be or guesses it might be.
Other than the construct of otherness, I have no idea why Erens decided to make Aviva a Jewish character....once or twice mentioned (and perhaps only to someone named Bruce Bennett-Jones might this be considered exotic), this Jewishness is undescribed and underdeveloped - other than having dark, curly hair and a Semitic face -- nothing else is made of this -- seemingly a throw-away to me. Erens does slightly better with the Korean-ness of Seung - but only in relation to the somewhat now tired "Asian" motif of disappointing the hard-working parents with another child who is less than perfect. A bit of staid stereotyping on both fronts.
Erens key focus is making real the old adage about teenage sex -- a lot of talk and little action -- in the sense that while the campus is aflame with speculation our protagonists remain - unwillingly - virgins.
The jealousy, then cowardice and callousness, then guilt and regret of the narrator might have been somewhat more powerful if he were not such an unlikable guy....his personality, problems, and approach to life and friends created someone I would prefer not to know, and ultimately, someone I could not care about very much.
This is not the coming-of-age story updated....there was no specifically wonderful twist that made this story (set in the late 70s) particularly insightful about that time. Yes, there is a sad and unfortunate ending to the tale, but that comes off as more depressing than instructive of anything.
All in, if you want terrific coming of age stories - reread A Catcher in the Rye - or better yet, get a copy of Frank Conroy's Stop Time -- about the best one I have ever read other than Salinger's classic.