Despite its provocative title, Nicole Hardy’s terrific new memoir, “Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin,’’ is not a salacious book. Yes, Hardy writes about her quest to make love with a man and lose her virginity. But that quest is a frank and endearing examination of a young woman’s sexuality and her place in a very traditional religion which unequivocally preaches that “there is only one right way to live. One complete truth.” Neither is this a book bashing religion generally or the Mormon Church specifically. Hardy asserts that “[t]hough its members may be flawed, the Gospel allowed me to grow up knowing my family of four is united under God. We are our own country, indivisible. And by living the way I’ve been taught to live, I’ve felt loved, purposeful, and connected to what is divine.”
This is a coming-of-age story about a young woman who yearns to find physical love entwined with emotional fulfillment, as well as success as a poet and a prose writer. While on the surface these are not unusual goals, at 36 Hardy is not about to lose her virginity to just any man. She has meaningful relationships with a few good men, relationships that include physical closeness through ballroom dancing or chaste sleepovers. Dancing, in particular, is a release for Hardy, who boldly states: “Here, I am not a Mormon, not a virgin, not a schoolteacher. I am only a woman here, only my body moving in response to the pressure of someone else’s hands.”
Hardy’s virginity is obviously an issue, in her life and in her story, but in her capable hands it is never an obsession. It is an opportunity to explore her relationship with the Mormon Church — which she eventually leaves — her family, and most of all her body. Hardy’s focus is on her life as a feminist and as a practicing Mormon; she reflects long and hard on her place as a woman in these various worlds. As Hardy explains it, in the Mormon Church, motherhood begins before birth and she has difficulty with what she is taught: “[I]t is the essence of who you are as women. It defines your very identity, your divine stature and nature, and the unique traits your Father gave you. My throat closes against words I can’t swallow, not one more time. Because it’s not true what they’re telling me — what they’ve been telling me since I was a child. There cannot be only one way to be a woman. My identity cannot be something I’ve never felt.”
She feels the calling to be a writer, making this a memoir about finding one’s ultimate passion. At heart, Hardy is an intrepid explorer. She quits her job as a high school English teacher in Seattle and takes off for Grand Cayman to pursue diving and poetry. During her year on the island, she applies to Bennington College’s master of fine arts program where she meets new friends who “are drawn, above all, to story.”
In that vein, “Confessions” is also, above everything else, a great story. The reader is right beside Hardy as she struggles with her “unplanned celibacy.” She is a beautiful writer who expresses her loneliness and frustrations in complete and original ways. On Grand Cayman she gets a job dressing mannequins and such close proximity to “a manufactured body” reminds her of how she longs for an intimate relationship. “Sometimes the flat of my hand rests too long against a rippled abdomen. My cheekbone rests against the plane of a shoulder blade, or a breast finds home in the muscled valley of a backbone groove.”
This is a book born out of an essay about Hardy’s first visit to Planned Parenthood at age 36. Published in the New York Times’s Modern Love column, the essay understandably caused a stir. But it admirably steered clear of sensationalism. As does this wonderful memoir about love, identity, writing, and the events in life that animate them.