The Berkeley Publishing Group
In Radhika Sanghani’s debut novel, Virgin, twenty-one year old Ellie Kostakis obsesses over finding a man to deflower her. Desperation drives her to endure the excruciating pain of a “Playboy Brazilian wax,” attempt several one-night stands, and even make out with a gay man. During her quest to lose her virginity, Ellie muses about the meaning of feminism and the sexual double standard for women. Unfortunately, the novel reads too much like a high-schooler’s whiny diary to manage any intriguing insights.
Ellie, however, isn’t a high schooler. She’s a senior at University College London, and the lone virgin in her social group—a fact she laments constantly. “The majority of university students have had sex, which I’m missing out on with every day that goes by, so for me to be like everyone else and be able to relate to my friends’ stories, I need to have sex and do the [chlamydia] test. It represents the dream,” she tells her best friend.
Sex—or the lack thereof—dominates Ellie’s every thought, action, and conversation. Everyone, from her mother to the beautician who gives her a Brazilian wax, seems fixated on Ellie’s lack of sexual experience. Of her two best friends, one is a self-proclaimed “slut,” and the other sleeps with the man Ellie is interested in…in Ellie’s bathtub. The world, filtered through her warped perspective, is hell-bent on rejecting her unless she can lose her v-card.
To Sanghani’s credit, however, the novel takes up some of the heated issues concerning sex in the twenty-first century, such as body image and the role of the porn industry. In the list of “Great Sexpectations” she compiles for her Vagina Blog (shortened to vlog), Ellie cites the following as modern-day expectations for women: no pubes, loud sex, wild sex, dirty talk, no condoms, blow jobs, and emotional detachment.
Though Ellie criticizes the media’s construction of unrealistic expectations, she is by no means immune. She rejects the notion of romantic intimacy, but envisions the words “MARRY ME” when being groped by a man in public. Despite her blatant disapproval of the porn industry, she consults several porn videos in an effort to perfect her blowjob technique.
On her quest to become a “real woman,” Ellie confronts other hefty issues such as the status of virginity in the modern world, the meaning of feminism today, and the double-standard facing women. Midway through the novel, Ellie tries to seduce a less-attractive family friend who turns out to be a closeted gay man using her to confirm his sexuality. Later, Ellie asks her best friend, “Is it feminist to try to use a guy to make you feel better about yourself, then realize he was using you to figure out if he was gay or not?” Unfortunately, Ellie quickly cuts her ruminations short to obsess over her latest love interest.
Part of the novel’s triteness comes from its reflection of Ellie’s image-saturated, appearance-obsessed, and superficial world. Sanghani introduces each new character with descriptions of his or her clothing, and Ellie is far more concerned with the performance of pleasure than pleasure itself.
In her attempt to capture the superficiality of Ellie’s thinking, Sanghani sacrifices opportunities to delve more deeply into its subject and characters. She abandons the fascinating questions that she raises, which demand to be handled with more nuance and intelligence, in favor of cheap humor and sophomoric entertainment.