Julia, the 26-year-old heroine of Emma Rathbone’s new novel Losing It, is obsessed with losing her virginity. It’s this obsession that creates the pun of the title: Julia is losing her mind because she can’t stop thinking about losing it.
"I’d lie in the middle of my living room and toss a small pillow up and down," she says, "and think about my virginity, and wonder if it subtly shaped everything I did."
She wonders if everyone can tell that she’s a virgin as soon as they look at her. She imagines what the people she meets might be like in bed. Her boss, she imagines, must have "bawdy, baseboard-pounding sex" with his wife; her aunt would be "frank and jubilant."
Eventually she decides to quit her job and spend a summer devoting herself fully to losing her virginity.
Julia’s single-minded focus on sex would feel off-putting, and the book shallow, if Rathbone weren’t so clear-eyed about where that focus comes from: namely, a sense of emptiness and stuntedness. It’s Julia’s desperate attempt to create order and experience in a life that seems to be passing her by.
Losing It’s preoccupation with sex is a smart encapsulation of how few "society-approved" narratives exist for adult women
Julia used to be an elite competitive swimmer. She spent her adolescence and most of college training and competing; she was ranked sixth in the world; she made it to the Olympic trials.
Then she plateaued. She dropped out of her college swim team. And as Losing It opens, she’s 26 years old and aimless, working a dead-end office job in a suburb where she knows no one, living alone in an apartment right off the highway, and, yes, still a virgin.
In the absence of any meaningful passion or obsession in her life — without the determined focus on swimming that gave order to her adolescence, without any work she might believe in or hobbies she might enjoy or relationships that might make her happy — Julia obsesses over sex.
With that context, the shallow sex comedy structure of Losing It’s plot could take a turn for the unutterably depressing, but Rathbone — who frequently writes Shouts & Murmurs columns for the New Yorker — is too funny to let that happen. She knows how to find the comedy in Julia’s neurotic obsessive fantasies, and the tragedy in her series of unendingly terrible adventures in online dating.
She keeps trying to convince herself that her dates are going well, to find the rom-com formula that will make whatever awful thing that just happened seem like something she can enjoy. So when a man brings his dog to a nice restaurant and then runs out when the check arrives, leaving Julia to pay the bill, she struggles to reframe the situation:
Was this going really well and I just didn’t know it? Was he on something? Were we having a great time? I tried to align myself with just that, that the recent turn of events on our date had exhibited the kind of spontaneity usually associated with people who were having a lot of fun together and were mutually delighted by the kind of madcap things that were taking place, that just naturally arose from our special chemistry.
That’s not what’s really happening — she’s on an awful date with a terrible person — but Julia’s attempt to make the experience look like something out of Garden State speaks to the paucity of stories that our culture makes available to adult women.
Julia was a child of enormous talent and potential. Now she’s an adult with a mediocre life. She’s been taught that the only the way to fill that life is by turning it into a romantic comedy, because that is the kind of story our culture tells about women — and that’s what she desperately tries to accomplish, over and over again.
In that attempt, she creates a different kind of story: one of neurotic self-obsession, of a smart, frustrated woman, of the unfortunate truth that so many women are convinced that their value depends on men’s judgment — all within a narrative that actually has very little to do with men. It’s a story that’s well worth reading.