In a time where hyper sexualization is not only a fixture in media, marketing and popular culture, but also central to ongoing conversations and movements surrounding self-love, body image, health and development, things are a tad confusing. Socially speaking. Politically, psychologically, physically, and culturally speaking. And yes, sexually speaking as well. Radhika Sanghani tackles many of these varying contexts in her debut novel Virgin, which follows twenty-one year old English student Ellie who has one major objective: to lose her virginity as soon as possible.
Ellie’s approach to her virginity is not representative of all virgins, but it is a pretty common mentality. Ellie is not tied down by any personal belief regarding sex other than the fact that she is ashamed that she is still has her “v-plates” and simply wants to have it, but has not due to the cumulative impact of early physical encounters, upbringing, and lack of experience in the art of attracting. She is funny, intelligent, occasionally socially inept, curvy with bushy hair, insecure but determined to get what she wants, and it’s pretty inspiring . It’s important to keep this characterization in mind while reading, because there are times when Ellie’s determination to lose her virginity borders an annoying obsession. Some readers may struggle identifying with her relentless pursuit, especially when she devalues her wonderful self because of her lack of experience.
But within Ellie’s at-times superficial journey to achieve this milestone is a series of awkward, humorous, and horrifying experiences that makes Virgin a very real story about women. Between Ellie’s sex-shaming Greek mother, uncomfortable encounters with the opposite sex at bars, independent education, physical preparation and the solidarity Ellie finds with her girlfriends, Sanghani has captured many elements common to women’s experiences when it comes to thinking, learning, talking about and having sex in such a wonderfully real and relatable way. By addressing the various complex intersections between self-perception, relationship expectations, desire and external influences through Ellie’s journey, Sanghani suggests that the actual valuation of sex should not be based on the act itself, but on a personal valuation of yourself. When Ellie actually realizes this, it does not come across as fulfilling as the actual story itself.
Although Sanghani certainly has a knack for comedic writing, Virgin would have been an even better read if she had taken the time to develop some of the secondary characters better, as many tend to be reduced to be advisors and spectators rather than characters who drive the plot forward. Perhaps this is intentional given Sanghani’s focus on presenting a main character who needs to truly realize their power, beauty and worth as an individual first and foremost. It is an empowering message that readers will surely pass along as they share this novel and story with their friends. I imagine it will inspire a lot of great conversations over wine and cheese – at least, it will for me.
I received an ARC of this novel from Penguin Canada in exchange for an honest review.