The Believer Book Award

The Eighth Annual—Hereby Presented To


Maidenhead by Tamara Faith Berger

It is the rare writer who can produce, between the same covers, a genuine work of erotica (which Maidenhead, from Coach House Books, is) and a deep portrait of a young woman’s coming-of-age, with all that implies: her political awakening, her newly critical eye turned toward her family, and a life of embroilments far greater than she can truly handle.

Tamara Faith Berger has been writing challenging and sexy books for more than a decade, but this novel is her best yet. She handles race and class as deftly as she does the effects of internet pornography on our sex lives and our moral lives—subjects that might be turned into excuses for sermons, but which she renders in original and shocking ways.

The reader never knows where she is going as she follows the protagonist, Myra, who is flanked by a sort of Greek chorus of voices—two women who befriend her, but who simultaneously exist outside of the story, or above it, commenting on Myra’s life and decisions. With these commentators, the novel unfolds in so many more dimensions than a straight, realist novel could (though it is that, compellingly, for most of the narrative).

Berger’s Maidenhead takes the young woman and her dawning consciousness seriously, as the centerpoint of some of our most important cultural conundrums, and treats her subject with sensitivity, courage, and sometimes even cruelty. We loved this book.

An excerpt from Maidenhead

When I handed the ocarina back, my fingers touched his again. The guy held me there for a second. His tongue licked his lips. I looked down. I felt a smile in the middle of my throat. Is this how you really meet a guy?

Then, I think because I had to go to the bathroom so badly, I flopped back down on the sand on my back, pretending that I was getting some sun. I knew he was watching me, waiting for something. I put my arm over my eyes. I felt him stare in my bathing-suit holes. My armpit was a little nude crease that was opening.

“The sounds you made were sweet,” the guy said. “You’re just a little bit shy. You’re a shy girl, it’s okay.”

The sounds I made were not sweet, I knew that.

“Come now for a walk,” the guy said.

This guy maybe thought that I wasn’t with my family on a family vacation. Maybe he thought that I was a college kid, that I was more than sixteen. I never thought I was shy, a shy girl. It was like he was waiting for me to say yes. To say yes as if I knew what I wanted.

“I understand. It’s okay,” the guy said. “I should leave you be.”

But he still didn’t get up, even after he said that. He started pushing his finger towards me through the sand. I felt like I wanted to laugh. But I was squinting and licking my lips continually.

“Come? Yes?”

I was thinking: Girls get scared way too often. Girls get stupidly scared. I was not scared.

Telling myself not to be scared kind of worked.

I stood up at the same time as the guy. My stomach was bloated. I was holding it in. The guy had his walking stick in one hand and he covered his bathing-suit strings with the other. The turtle bulged in his back bathing-suit pocket. I held tightly on to my book.

This man likes me, and my family knows nothing about it.

LEE: You have to let people be witnesses. It’s the most human thing, to tell people what happened to you.

GAYL: Nah, a story is visual only. Words are meant to be spit out and forgotten.

LEE: Trauma gets lodged in our bodies. We can’t just spit it out.

GAYL: Trauma’s not a story.

LEE: Trauma is a story.

GAYL: Trauma’s comedy. Trauma’s got the power of unseen forces. At least then, with your body, you can metamorphose it.

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