‘The shocking thing about the five Lisbon sisters was how nearly normal they seemed when their mother let them out for the one and only date of their lives. Twenty years on, their enigmatic personalities are embalmed in the memories of the boys who worshipped them and who now recall their shared adolescence…’
This is the blurb on my edition of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides. Pretty damn intriguing, I’d say. No less so are the opening few words, which tell us (SPOILERS – SORT OF) that the five teenage Lisbon sisters all commit suicide over the course of the novel. You know from the start, this is going to be interesting…
The Virgin Suicides is set in Grosse Point, Michigan, in the 1970s, and begins with the attempted suicide of Cecilia, the youngest of the Lisbon sisters. It is narrated, atypically, in plural first person, by a group of boys who watch the disintegration of the Lisbon family from a treehouse across the street. Although some of the boys are named, the plurality is never broken. The use of plural narrators has been called ‘a Greek chorus’, especially in light of the tragic subject matter, but Eugenides has said he doubted it would have been called that if he didn’t have a Greek name. As the blurb suggests, the boys worship the Lisbon sisters.
The story is being told with twenty years of hindsight and with the collection of evidence (which they name, as Exhibits 1-97), but they admit that even after all their work, much of the book is speculation. The five sisters – Cecilia (13), Lux (14), Bonnie (15), Mary (16) and Therese (17) – are often indistinguishable to the boys. They have many features in common and seem to act mostly as a single entity; ethereal and unreal in spirit at some times and then bodily and human at others, with descriptions of how they smelled, their underarm hair, and how some of the boys who loved them imagined them doing mundane things, like brushing their teeth, and finding it more interesting than a sexual fantasy.
Things I liked
ALL OF IT. I really enjoyed this book. Yes, the subject matter is depressing and yes, this might not be the best book to read if you’re unhappy or despairing of humanity. What it does do, however, is give a stunning and striking interpretation of adolescence, what it means to be girls, what it means to be boys looking at girls and seeking to understand girls,
The suburban setting is key to the reality of the novel; the boys, our plural-first-person-narrators, watch from their treehouse across the street, the neighbours are all interviewed in the boys’ attempts to reclaim and piece together the story and lives of the Lisbon sisters. In the interviews we get the sense of how people’s memories get mixed up, how there is no one side to any story. There is a sense of the futility of official intervention and the inability of adults to comprehend the teenage condition. Eugenides’s representation of Mr and Mrs Lisbon is one of the most interesting aspects of this novel for me – I expected either to blame or pity the parents of these girls, but instead came out feeling both, and yet neither. I’ve given it a fair amount of thought; obviously I’m still very confused. If anyone reading this has read the book (or goes on to read it) I’d be very interested to know what you think!
(MILD SPOILER ALERT – SKIP TO ‘THINGS’ I DIDN’T LIKE IF YOU’RE WORRIED)
I love that you never find out why they did it. The speculation is fully explored, by lots of observers, but the definitive answer is never given. I love that.
There are too many things I liked about this book to list, but these are the first ones that came to me.
Things I didn’t like
Very few. None come to mind. Open to discussion.
Should you read this book?
Yes. But don’t go into it if you’re feeling miserable (see Things I liked section). But otherwise YES.
Edit: I also learned two new words
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The Book Depository
You can buy the book here: http://www.bookdepository.com/Virgin-Suicides-Jeffrey-Eugenides/9780007524303/?a_aid=SpidersLibrary
Because I am trying not to use Amazon in my own half-arsed protest-y way, I’d like to recommend to people that they check out The Book Depository, which is a great, user-friendly site with affordable books ranging from brand new releases to classics, and in many different editions at less-than brand new prices. As I am now officially an affiliate of The Book Depository, I gain a small commission if you use my affiliate link to buy books! Please do check it out, even if you don’t buy anything right now.