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by Tamara Faith Berger

Not counting the 2005 film adaptation of her debut novel, Lie with Me, it’s been seven years since Tamara Faith Berger – lit-porn provocateur extraordinaire – last satiated readers, with her sophomore novel, The Way of the Whore. Her follow-up is well worth the wait.

Maidenhead’s terrain is characteristic of the author’s previous work: the gritty sexual education of a teenage girl; desire that is smutty, slutty, agented, and unapologetic; a female bawdy that cannot be contained or policed. However, the novel delves even further into the realm of sexual politics than Berger’s previous work, exploring race, class, and the master/slave power dynamic to ultimately create what the book calls “a liberation narrative.”

Sixteen-year-old Myra and her family – Mom, Dad, sister Jody, and brother Jeff – are attempting a vacation in a down-market Key West beachfront motel overrun with college kids on spring break. While Mom and Dad – on the cusp of splitsville – alternately ignore and berate one another, Jody hunts down pay phones to dial her boyfriend back home, and Jeff amuses himself with comic books. Myra, however, is fully present in her tropical surroundings. She soon meets Elijah, an older Tanzanian musician who charms her on the beach, and later, in his motel room. Elijah’s girlfriend, Gayl, sees Myra as a “baby who has been pampered all her life” and who needs to “wake up.” For her part, Myra discovers her sexuality via incessant masturbation and motel porn.

Returning home to Toronto, Mom and Dad call it quits, and Myra trades in her “toxic and naive” high school friends for an older, intellectual crowd. She begins feeding on cultural theory as fodder for the essay she’s working on: “Sex Slaves: The Modern, the Foreign, the Free.” When Elijah and Gayl hit town and shack up at Filmore’s Hotel, they invite Myra to push the boundaries of her research – an exercise that’s at once sordid and perverse, stunning and inspired.

At the risk of sounding grandiose, Maidenhead is a masterpiece: a richly layered, complexly rendered, rhythmically written, and brilliantly executed meditation on power, desire, and consciousness.