I finished Maidenhead in approximately three days, feeling the urge to pick up the book at every opportunity. Yet when I finished the novel, I was left feeling empty.
Myra, naive and curious, is on a family vacation to the southernmost tip of Florida – a mangy Key West full of Spring Breakers. Here, suffering through the embarrassments of a family on the verge of splitting up, she meets Elijah, a charismatic Tanzanian musician who seduces her at the edge of the tourist zone. Myra longs to lose her virginity to Elijah, and is shocked to learn he lives with Gayl, a secretive and violent woman with a strange power over him.
Myra and her family return to an unnamed, middle-class, grey Canadian city and she falls in with a pot-smoking, intellectual anarchist crowd. When Gayl and Elijah travel north and infiltrate Myra’s life, she walks willingly into their world: Myra continues to experiment sexually with Elijah, while Gayl plays an integral part in the increasingly abject games.
Maidenhead traverses the desperate, wild spaces of a teenage girl’s self-consciousness. How does a girl feel scared? What is she scared of? And how does telling yourself not to be scared really work? As Myra enters worlds unfamiliar of sex, porn, race and class, she explores territories unknown in herself.
From the publisher, Coach House Books
It felt raunchy and erotic, but I can’t help feeling like I don’t understand why it took place. Why is Myra’s story of abduction, sexual abuse, and teenage awakening important? This isn’t to say that raising awareness for these issues and the seriousness of the matter isn’t important, but we as readers saw so little of the aftermath of the incident, that it feels almost like it was violent and shocking simply for the sake of being gratuitously violent. The coming-of-age story is strong, but it feels dwarfed in my mind compared to the sexually explicit content.
Sheila Heti, in a review for The Globe and Mail, sums up Myra perfectly (and from the sounds of it, many of Berger’s female protagonists)—”a young woman at once innocent and naturally depraved, intelligent and uncommonly sensitive, reserved, submissive and independent – a classic woman-ravaged type.”
Maidenhead is told in the first person from Myra’s point of view with distracting interjections of dialogue between characters Gayl and Lee. These discussions are confusing at first, and yet feel like they were inserted as an afterthought to answer the why does this story matter question I posed earlier. The frank language and honesty about female sexuality is appreciated, but I feel like Myra’s further “academic” obsession exploring masochism, slavery, the performance aspects of porn, and how sexuality and power intersect was a bit overt too.
Overall, I think where Maidenhead shines is breaking the norm—writing a sexually explicit teenager, who voices her desires, and acts on her impulses is not a model society likes to emphasize. However, I think the balance between porn and literature was skewed.