I found myself a little bogged down in the book I was reading the other day and in need of something a little lighter. I had finally ordered and received Losing It by Emma Rathbone, a book I’d been looking forward to for quite awhile, so I started reading that in the early hours of Monday morning. I finished it Monday night—but that’s solely a testament to the number of pages in the book, not necessarily my enjoyment of the story.
Losing It follows Julia Greenfield, 26 years old and aimless, as she leaves behind a dead-end job and a lackluster apartment in Arlington, VA, to spend the summer with her Aunt Vivienne in Durham, NC. But what sets this book apart from the expected fare of a young woman uprooting her life to reinvent herself is the one interesting fact that really drew me to the story in the first place: Julia is a 26-year-old virgin, and she’s determined to make this the summer she finally—you guessed it—loses it.
Things get off to a rocky start in Durham for Julia. Her aunt is a hospice worker and a part-time artist who paints plates with unique scenes of everything from rural life to the legend of King Arthur, and though they clicked when Julia was a kid, they now can’t seem to get comfortable with each other. Julia gets another dead-end office job to make a little money and goes on a few dates that all end poorly (these moments, if a bit enhanced for dramatic effect, played really well). But things begin to get a little more complicated for Julia when she discovers two things: there’s an older lawyer at work who might be interested in her (despite secrets of his own) and Vivienne is also a virgin.
I was expecting this to be a funny, heartwarming book that explored everything from family dynamics to the millennial dating sphere, from finding connections between disparate people to sexuality and the place of sex in our lives and in society. Unfortunately, this book delivered on none of those things. The writing is stilted and awkward, in a way that I think was meant to convey Julia’s self-consciousness or social awkwardness, but which really only serves to make it hard to read. There are almost-conflicts introduced that never actually come to a head. And with a rushed conclusion and one-page semi-epilogue, the novel also largely lacks any real emotional impact or closure.
What it seemed was heralded as a big revel on the front flap—namely, Vivienne’s virginity—is simply told to us by the character within Julia’s first few days of living there and is barely touched upon again, except for Julia’s many laments of “How could this happen?” and “Will this happen to me?” I don’t feel that Losing It deals with any of its supposed themes with particular grace or subtlety and it ignores fascinating characters (again, Vivienne) in favor of Julia’s selfish narration, which is nearly impossible to relate to or sympathize with.
On the topic of Julia, I read one Goodreads review that distinguished between “unlikable” and simply “annoying” characters and pointed out that Julia is the latter. This is entirely true. Good unlikable characters are still fun to follow on their journey; you want to know what they’ll do next and where they’ll end up, because, as the cliche goes, you love to hate them. Julia barely progresses as a character through her slow-moving and predictable plot. She learns next to nothing about being a good niece, daughter, friend, or human being.
Julia’s “problem” is an interesting jumping-off point for a story, but the execution is, I feel, harmful. It should be a positive thing to have a book in existence that allows a young women to speak so frankly about her sexual experience (or lack thereof) and her desire to have sex. But instead of using Vivienne’s confession to connect with her or to explore the idea that a life without sex is not unfulfilled—rather, far from it—Julia simply holds her aunt up as a warning, a fate to be avoided at all costs.
When Julia eventually asks Vivienne the intensely personal question (which I don’t believe Julia had any right to ask) of why she’s still a virgin, Vivienne becomes melancholy and says simply, “I don’t know.” And that’s fair. You really can’t pinpoint one moment in your life and say that that is the exact moment x, y, or z didn’t happen; you simply can’t know. But there’s no reason for Vivienne to be ashamed of her virginity.
Let me say right now that there is nothing wrong with being a virgin. There’s also nothing wrong with having multiple partners. There’s nothing wrong with sleeping with whoever you want, as long as you both consent to it. This is what upset me the most about Losing It. It sounds like it should be a sex positive novel, but it isn’t. And while sex looms large in American society and in most people’s lives (and certainly in this book), having it or not should absolutely not define you. It shouldn’t matter to you or your partner how many partners you’ve had, as long as you’ve been safe in the past and as long as you’re honest with each other in the moment. Virginity isn’t a flaw or a character defect. It’s a social construct meant to shame girls both for “losing it” or for not having done so. It’s a paradox that only perpetuates harm and hurt.
After following Julia to Durham, I realized I didn’t really care what she did there if the author chose to focus solely on her—which she did, with plenty of asides about the hokey locals and a plethora of sarcastic wows and okays. So why did I keep reading? Well, I don’t often give up on books. And I think I was waiting for all the promises made in the summary and blurbs to be fulfilled. I was waiting for Julia to have her “ah-ha” moment (and that isn’t innuendo), but it never—I’m so sorry—came.
This was a fast read that made me reflect on a lot of things, so I’m thankful for that, in the end. But I wish I’d borrowed this one from the library instead of purchasing it.
Leave your best sexual innuendo in the comments, because why not. BYE.