Julia Greenfield is treading water. She’s a former competitive swimmer whose life has no forward momentum. At 26, she’s an educational consultant in a depressing D.C. suburb. She has no professional ambition, no passions, no social life. She’s also a virgin. But this, she tells us, isn’t the worst of it: The worst is her inability to stop obsessing about her stunted sexuality.
And obsess she does. From the first page of Emma Rathbone’s new novel, “Losing It,” Julia is searching the world for sexual insight. She returns, again and again, to the conquests of teenage friends. She imagines the proclivities of most people who cross her path. She plots her own deflowering.
There’s a familiarity to this setup. It’s the plot of countless rom-coms, “American Pie” knockoffs and breezy beach reads. But Rathbone is attempting something more ambitious here: Her virgin, Julia, is a depressed young woman seeking a normal and happy life. But Julia has incorrectly diagnosed her malaise: She lacks human connection, not sex.
Julia is a difficult character. She has a droll inner monologue, whether reflecting on how she’s “float[ing] facedown in the internet” or graduating from college “beached on a communications degree.” And her way with words can be touching. She describes a terminally ill woman as having “a trembling shine about her — like a bulb of water on a leaf right before it breaks.”
But the more time we spend with her, the more frustrating it becomes that she can’t be half as eloquent outwardly. A lot of the dialogue in “Losing It” rehashes Julia’s conversational awkwardness, which often doesn’t extend beyond “oh, okay,” “great” and “cool.” Julia is stunted, and we, like her, are trapped inside the most functional part of her: her mind.
Julia does at least have some wits about her, though, and so she sets off to find happiness — which is to say, a good lay. She quits her job and, with nowhere else to go, moves to Durham, N.C. to live with her Aunt Viv. This, she reasons, is where she’ll escape “the chain of small failures” that has recently defined her life. Aunt Viv, in contrast, may not have Julia’s model life, but her circumstances are pleasant enough. Viv has a comfortable house, a fulfilling job, close friends and a talent for crafting decorative plates. Only then, one night, after Julia returns home from a bad date, Viv just happens to mention that she’s a virgin.
Viv knows nothing of Julia’s own virginity. In fact, the women are all but strangers, so Viv’s admission feels less than natural. But the moment, if clunky, offers Julia an important new riddle: If she can figure out why Aunt Viv is a virgin, perhaps she can save herself from the same fate. But Julia, as is her way, doesn’t go about this with any humanity. It doesn’t occur to her to cultivate a relationship with Aunt Viv. Instead, she ponders. She obsesses. And then, concluding that Viv must be as lonely as she is, she sets her aunt up on a date. It doesn’t go well.
“Losing It” is building to something, but it’s not the loss of Julia’s virginity. We readers have always known how unsatisfying that will ultimately be. What we want — and what Julia needs most — is to confront her selfish myopia. She needs a psychological deflowering. And, as we peer out at the world through Julia’s depressive field of vision, we see a light steadily growing: Viv wants to strip Julia of her defensive layers, both her cynicism and self-pity, and force this 26-year-old to realize that forging genuine connections is what shapes our lives and helps ensure our happiness — certainly more than “mechanical sex” ever will.
It’s no spoiler to say that actual sex does occur. Like Chekhov’s gun, virginity introduced in the first act will be lost by the third. And when it does happen, it no longer feels vital to the story’s resolution or even, so much, to Julia. That’s not a flaw of the novel. It’s simply a sign that Julia has finally, thankfully, put a part of her life in perspective. As she says, “You think you’ll be different. . . . And then you’re just you, like you always were.”
By Emma Rathbone
Riverhead. 272 pp. $26