Creating a provocative sensation upon its publication in 1993 with a film adaptation that became a cult classic just six years later, The Virgin Suicides remains a persistent contemporary classic; a novel at once remarkably elusive, open to perpetual interpretation, and yet with an intensely personal resonance for many readers. It was the debut novel of author Jeffrey Eugenides (winning awards even before its publication), and in many ways it lays the groundwork for the mastery and peculiarity of a seminal artist. The story, of course, is that of the Lisbon sisters – Therese, Mary, Bonnie, Lux, and Cecilia, who range in ages from 17 to 13, respectively – and the year in which they ended their young lives. In a uniquely stylized first-person-plural narrative the unidentified boys across the street, telling the story twenty years later, explore every waking moment of their obsession with the otherworldly Lisbon sisters: beginning with young Cecilia’s first suicide attempt and subsequent completion, and carrying on fixatedly through until the sisters’ tragic dénouement. In between lies an electric, compelling portrait of a doomed search for liberation in the clutch of youthful desperation; of parental extremes warring with teenage angst; and of the grimy secrets hiding in the shadows of 1970s suburbia.
The Virgin Suicides reads like few other books, with Eugenides, then a novelist-newcomer, standing on no ceremony for the ethical or moral niceties that might stand in the way of this intrepid story. He allows the collective narrative to divulge and disturb as it will, weaving into its most grotesque and honest territories without apology. Eugenides explores these territories with perverse curiosity, as do his boy-men telling the story, poking at the short lives of the Lisbon sisters with brazen and indelible devotion. Though dialogue is often scarce, the Lisbon girls come to life, hazily and irresistibly, under the narrators’ ministrations: shimmering reflections of clever, romantic visionaries on the cusp of an unreachable womanhood, girls labeled as “troubled” or “crazy”, but only troubled by the manipulations of society and only crazed by the boundaries in their paths. Throughout the narrative they stay under the surface of the murky glass that encompasses the distance between them and the rest of the world: the narrators, as well as the readers, are never allowed within the sphere of any one Lisbon sister, never granted entrance into the realm of her thoughts and dreams – and, most aggravatingly, never allowed to understand her reasons. What results is the faded picture of five tragic figures set against the more vividly realized surroundings of suburban Michigan in the 1970s; in a way, the haziness of the Lisbon sisters, combined with the anonymity of the unnamed and unnumbered boys across the street, draws an inverted focus. There’s a kind of strangeness to this style that wonderfully echoes the bizarre, thought-provoking, and at times profane story at the heart of the book.
Distracting only slightly from the compelling singularity of the novel and the enchantress-like mystique of the otherwise ordinary Lisbon sisters is Eugenides’s magnetic prose, which soars throughout the narrative with delightful flair and a dry, darkly humorous edge. His ability to weave through the intricacies of language and emerge with art is just beautiful; his writing is rough-hewn and elegant all at once. With inimitable style and boldness, The Virgin Suicides is fascinating and disturbing, drawing an arresting line between the constraints of sexual repression and the inevitability of mortality.
The Virgin Suicides
was my June pick for the
; I've been meaning to read it since before I can remember, and it was certainly worth the wait. There's something so incredible about this novel to me; I can't really put my finger on it, but hopefully I gave voice to it in some degree above. This is one of the rare occasions when I saw the film adaptation before seeing the book, but it didn't hinder my experience at all. (Actually, everything just seems to look a little more ethereal overlaid with Sofia Coppola's wonderful imagery, doesn't it?)