Reviewed in this essay: Maidenhead by Tamara Faith Berger. Coach House Books, 2012.
The state or condition of being a virgin, virginity (esp. of a young woman, occas. of a man). Also: the hymen (occas.: †the vagina), esp. considered as the mark of a woman’s chastity. (OED)
And so, there it is. We have a title whose dictionary definition conveniently sums up the action, theme, and meaning of the novel in question. While this may be a *slight exaggeration (*also see: over-simplification, facile, or reductive), the title’s multiple meanings parallel the diverse and interconnected concerns of virginity, power, race, and pleasure in Tamara Faith Berger’s third book, Maidenhead. The novel’s positively captivating lead is sixteen-year-old Myra, desperate to grow up, and desperate to lose her virginity. She is the locus of colliding and colluding forces of sex and desire, dangerously eager to feel and be felt by a Tanzanian musician named Elijah who she meets on a family trip to Key West. Myra is one of the most surprising characters we’ve read in a long time, and there is the sense that this is in part because she is young, yet incredibly astute (considering points of intersection between Hegelian dialectics, slavery, and prostitution), and because she is a female who experiences sexual pleasure—intensely and often. Not only does Berger approach female pleasure, that which is normally considered highly elusive, or even a myth, depending who you talk to, with candour and perspicacity, she dares to write about the perverse and at times self-destructive instincts that are bound up in all sexual desire, regardless of gender.
The story is told in the first person with the sporadic third person interjections of two of the novel’s characters, Gayl and Lee, who never meet in the space of Myra’s narrative. The short meta-dialogues between Gayl and Lee often point to their own involvement in Myra’s sexual coming of age, as well as provide some comic relief to a charged and at times frenetic story. Divided into three sections, “Teenage Girls,” “Make-Believe,” and “Maidenhead,” the novel becomes more explicit, more porn laden, and as you can imagine, more addictive as it progresses. Make no mistake, however, Maidenhead does not give us a simple 165 pages of raunchy fantasy and teenage sex. Myra’s sexual discovery is fraught and compounded by the dissolving marriage of her parents, the tragedy of high-school, and the perplexing presence of Gayl alongside the object of her desire, Elijah. As such, our lustful protagonist purposefully collides head-on with the complexities of poverty, race, class struggle, and subordination. Berger has crafted a novel that speaks in cadence with the naturally convoluted experience of human desire and its concurrent and relentless representations online and in other media. Written, it would seem, in response to (yet not in rejection of) the proliferating images of sex that crowd the visual and cyber domain, Maidenhead is an antidote to these two-dimensional portraits of our multifaceted desires; it is bold, earnest, and provocative in all senses of the word.