The Virgin Suicides
by Jeffrey Eugenides
I’m not fond of languorous character studies. You see, part of the reason I adore fantasy and sci-fi is the sheer abundance of wild plots and premises that range from the interesting to the epic. Plot, for me as a reader and as a writer, is king. For me, Jeffrey Eugenides’ novels are the perfect balance between plot and character. Middlesex, which I adored, was able to combine its fascinating plot with marvelous details and astonishing imagery. I only wish Eugenides wrote more novels, but I can see why he hasn’t–both of his novels, while they feel effortless, are obviously the result of a great deal of work. Eugenides is one of the few authors I would read solely for their writing style. I barely took notes while reading The Virgin Suicides. I was entranced.
The Virgin Suicides, Eugenides’ first novel, focuses on the Lisbon girls, five teenage sisters who killed themselves within a year of each other in the 1970s–Cecilia, Lux, Bonnie, Mary, and Therese. The narrators, a mysterious chorus of boys who grew up with them and are now grown men, are haunted by the Lisbon affair even now. The Virgin Suicides is presented as their personal account of the case, often referencing the various items of the Lisbon girls’ they have collected over the years as evidence.
Despite the fact that the narrating group of boys are never identified, they are very vividly realized, in part because they identify themselves so strongly with the case of the Lisbon sisters. The case is lovingly poured over, from Cecelia’s first attempt and later last success. Even while the girls are alive, the boys meticulously catalog the girls’ lives with all the shock and awe of boys discovering girls for the first time. We learn everything about the girls through such meticulous detail–everything, except the reason why the girls killed themselves, an answer the boys, now men, are searching for. I’m hesitant to fawn all over Eugenides’ use of details, but it works so well that I don’t think I can help it. From life in a mostly female household to high school in the 1970s to the surreal horror of the second to last suicide, everything has a ring of authenticity about it. The Lisbon girls, being the obsession of the boys, are the focus of such details, but there’s an especially fantastic passage about Trip Fontaine, the guy every girl is in love in–except, of course, the one Lisbon girl he’s mad for. Occasionally, as the boys have interviewed everyone surrounding the case, we see it from the older generations’ perspective, but these observations are fleeting.
The plot, such as it is, is not too terribly complicated, but very organic. At first, the Lisbon girls seem like nice suburbanites that the boys of the neighborhood are fascinated by, being unreachable objects of desire. Halfway through the book, however, the nearly hysterically strict Mrs. Lisbon and the spineless Mr. Lisbon lock up the girls in their house after their very first date goes awry. It was only after I finished the novel that I realized there was actually very little plot. I could say I was tricked, but I don’t actually mind. There’s enough plot to keep things moving, but I’d rather have the moments like the boys realizing the Lisbon girls watch them with just as much fascination than a complex mystery.
I enjoyed it and I couldn’t put it down. However, do not go into The Virgin Suicides expecting any answers. This is not a mystery novel, although the mystery of the Lisbon girls is at its core. While I found the conclusion satisfying, it’s less of a resolution and more of a fade out. If you want more plot, but want to see Eugenides’ magnificent writing style, you ought to read Middlesex. I just wish he wrote more novels.
Bottom line: A dreamy, darkly funny, and meticulously detailed account of the suicides of the five Lisbon sisters through the eyes of the boys who were obsessed with them, Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides doesn’t offer up any answers to its central mystery–but it is a spectacular novel.
I bought this book from Books Again.