A teenage girl’s life is unsettled when a young couple moves to town in this eerie literary fiction debut.
Ginger, the heroine of the novel, is a bookish 15-year-old girl whose life thus far has been circumscribed by her family, her job at a local restaurant and hanging out with her sole close friend, Cherry. Her hometown of Wick, Mass., is unassuming as well, though it has hints of a dark history relating to the Salem witch trials. Arriving to break Ginger out of her just-so existence are Theo and Raquel Motherwell, who charm her with their big-city sophistication, wit and candor about sex. That last part is especially important: This is ultimately a book about sexual awakening (the title derives from a virgin-themed porn mag Ginger discovers called The Beginner), but Wolff’s prose is deliberately stripped of sensuousness, striking a grim, gothic tone instead. (As it happens, Ginger is a fan of Poe and Frankenstein.) The writing is engaging, simple and sometimes pleasantly cryptic; Wolff beautifully inhabits Ginger’s emotional transformations when she eavesdrops on the Motherwells having sex, or when her friendship with Cherry begins to fray. But the elegant, gauzy prose doesn’t entirely compensate for the novel’s weak plot turns. Ginger’s growing obsession with the Motherwells, to the point that she spends nights in their home, strains credibility both because of the age differential and Raquel’s pomposity—when she’s not outright condescending toward Ginger, she’s spouting pedantically about parents, sex and Wick’s witchy past. Theo, meanwhile, is so underdrawn as to be a cipher, existing largely as a symbol of sexual possibility. Those unrealistic characterizations feel intentional on Wolff’s part, not signs of first-novel clumsiness. But they do make Ginger’s character less compelling—so that, by the end, when the airiness of the prose must be set aside and Ginger is forced to make some difficult decisions, the drama feels muted and anticlimactic.
Admirable for its tone and insight into the teenage mind, but with a few mechanical difficulties.