“When did you lose your virginity?” is not a question I typically ask in author interviews. For Losing It author Emma Rathbone, however, it’s becoming de rigueur.
“Even my editor said people are going to ask you when you lost your virginity and they’re going to think that maybe it’s about you,” says Rathbone, whose sophomore novel stars a 26-year-old virgin named Julia Greenfield. “I really don’t know how to broker that because, no, it’s not based on me but that seems like a weird way to steamroll a conversation, to be like this isn’t about me.”
Rathbone lost her virginity in college, at the somewhat tardy but still perfectly acceptable age of 20. That’s leagues ahead of Julia, who has no prospects and a real buzzkill of an office job at an anonymous glass building in the dreary Washington, D.C. suburb she moved to sight unseen.
“I sat at my desk and stared at a calendar with a bunch of dancing tamales on it and played with a little piece of paper and thought about the fact that I was twenty-six and still a virgin,” Rathbone begins. “There was that, and then there was the fact that I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
Rathbone recently started working in sunny Los Angeles, as a writer on Jenji Kohan’s hotly anticipated new Netflix series about female wrestlers in the 1980s, G.L.O.W.—which stands for “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.” She is the author of The Patterns of Paper Monsters and many humorous New Yorker pieces, including the Shouts & Murmurs piece that made you ashamed of every email sign-off you’ve ever written.
If anyone can tell us the commonalities between comedy writing and having sex, it’s her.
“I guess in both there’s some trial and error,” she says. “You kind of have to find a groove, you know? And when it’s going well it’s going really well and when it’s going badly everybody can tell. Well, I guess just the two people—not to judge if people are having orgies—but when it’s not going well, you both secretly know.”
After abruptly quitting her job at the start of summer, Julia winds up living outside Durham, North Carolina with her father’s sister, Aunt Vivienne, a hospice worker who, in her spare time, paints intricate scenes on plates. Mightn’t she be a virgin? Nevertheless, Julia has high hopes for an eventful summer.
“I thought, This is where I’m going to lose my virginity,” Rathbone writes. “It would be like going to another country; I would be completely anonymous. I could do whatever I wanted, and it wouldn’t be attached to the chain of small failures I’d managed to accrue....The new plan also had the added incentive of basically being my only option.”
To find her way, Julia will have to grapple with the underlying causes of advanced virginity—her own (impending) and Aunt Viv’s (established)—and cease to see sex as a panacea.
“Our culture is so much about sex and relationships and trial and error and there are these people who are just not participating in that at all,” Rathbone says. “They have interesting, rich souls and interior lives—what’s going on with them? How is it possible to be that unlucky? How do we deal with the fact that this could happen to someone you love?”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.