July 19, 2016

Review: The Virgin Suicides

The Virgin Suicides
Jeffrey Eugenides

First published: 1993 (my edition 2002)

Bloomsbury, paperback (format B), 249p.
ISBN: 978-0-7475-6059-3

The haunting, humorous and tender story of the brief lives of the five entrancing Lisbon sisters, The Virgin Suicides, is Jeffrey Eugenides' classic debut novel.

The shocking thing about the girls was how nearly normal they seemed when their mother let them out for the one and only date in their lives.  Twenty years on, their enigmatic personalities are embalmed in the memories of the boys who worshiped them and who now recall their shared adolescence: the brassiere draped over a crucifix belonging to the promiscuous Lux; the sisters' breathtaking appearance on the night of the dance; and the sultry, sleepy street across which they watched a family disintegrate and fragile lives disappear.

I read this book over the course of perhaps 3 hours last night, and to say I was left feeling unsettled is an understatement.  In The Virgin Suicides, we span the course of a year as we follow the narrator  as he reflects on the memories he has of those fragile Lisbon sisters some 20 years later, and the implosion of their family as the sisters all commit suicide that year.

Now that sounds a bit trite, but the way this book is written - through the eyes of a man reflecting on his adolescent crush on these girls, and how he - and the other boys who adored them, too - have seemingly spent 20 years gathering evidence and taking witness statements from as many people who knew the sisters as possible, gives you a real insight into this families dramatic decline.

After the first sister, 13 year old Cecilia, tries to take her life, you get a hint of things to come in the way this family is structured.  So when Cecilia finally succeeds in killing herself, it sets in motion a chain of events that still leaves the narrator, and reader, wondering. . . why?

Mrs Lisbon rules her house.  She is not demonstratively affectionate (and seems to carry no sense of blame in later interviews) and does not seem to see the withering of her daughters under the iron fist she uses to keep them under control.  They are not allowed to have boys in the house, no makeup, and she even went so far as to pull them out of school.  But was that for their sake as she claimed, or rather for her own selfish reasons?  You never really see a softer, loving side of this mother.

Then we have their father.  He is just lost.  He wanders around in a fog, escaping the house only to teach at the school, never seeming to see the isolation and ostracism his daughters encounter at school - and how they cleaved together in support of each other (or looking back, was it?).  Even the attitudes of the community were amazingly destructive. 

While reading this book I didn't see this as a story about adolescent teenage boys fantasizing over the sisters in general (i.e., didn't matter which sister, they were all beautiful and fragile), but rather as a window into this families destruction witnessed through the eyes of young observers who were baffled, scared, and angry at the treatment the girls endured at the hands of their parents, friends, and community.

Note: I also found the symbolism of a dying elm tree as well as the house and yard falling into disrepair and decline wonderfully reflective of the decay of the family as the year went on.  From suburban paradise, or at least no different to any other house in the neighbourhood, to an almost abandoned shell of a home when it was eventually sold.  Broken, just like this family.

If you are reading this book in the hopes that you will discover answers as to why they died, then you will be disappointed - but I think that is the point.  There are no answers.  You can't possibly know what is going through someones mind as they contemplate this course of action.  You can try to puzzle it out, try to use logic to fit all the evidence together, but there will still be key pieces missing, and the picture will never be complete.

Now it has been at least 10 years since I've seen the movie adaptation with Kirsten Dunst and Josh Hartnett, but I think I'll try to find a copy as this book is something I wish we had read in high school as it is an amazing piece of social commentary about a very taboo topic.  It invites discussion, which is a wonderful thing, and a great way to broach this subject matter.

Will try another Eugenides in the future I think as I found his writing style easy to get through, and well written.  

I hope you enjoyed my thought on The Virgin Suicides.  I'd love to hear what you thought of the book, or movie, did you like it, hate it.  Let me know ;-D

Until next time,

No comments:

Post a Comment