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[420] The Virgin Suicides – Jeffrey Eugenides

” It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together. ” (5,248)

Set in the Michigan suburbia in 1970s, The Virgin Suicides seems to be another American small-town tragedy, but Eugenides, with his contemplative style, transforms it into a unique masterpiece. It tells the story of the Lisbon family from the point of view of a collective narrator, “we”, a group of young men who, infatuated with the Lisbon daughters, speak in one voice. The story begins exactly a year ago, when 13-year-old Cecilia Lisbon succeeded on her second attempt of suicide. A haunted quality persists about the Lisbon house after her gruesome death. Not only does the Lisbon house decline with growing shabbiness and creeping disrepair, so do the people who live in it, as a slow disintegration eats them from the inside. Everyone in town also dates the demise of the neighborhood from that suicide.

Our surveillance had been so focused we missed nothing but a simple returned gaze. Who else did they have to turn to? Not their parents. Nor the neighborhood. Inside their house they were prisoners; outside, lepers. And so they hid from the world, waiting for someone—for us—to save them. (4,199)

The book is a retrospective quest as the anonymous narrator(s) recall the odd family, whose daughters, battling with the loss of their youngest sister, refusing to accept the world as it was handed down to them, take their lives exactly on the first anniversary of Cecilia’s passing. But plausible as it seems, the post-trauma theory is no more than a speculation, a hypothesis. As Eugenides reassembles the events of the “year of suicides,” we never have a full grasp of what really happens to the Lisbon girls other than their unfortunate demise. Nor do the people who tell the story. One never gets to know the sisters, maybe, other than Lux’s promiscuity. They are all from one mold. Neither readers nor narrators understand why Mrs Lisbon imposes a strict regime on the girls. The authority’s nonchalance toward their absence in school is also questioned.

The doors to the girls’ shared bedrooms were not completely closed. Breathings and murmurings issued from them. He listened to the sounds as though they could tell him what the girls were feeling and how to comfort them. (3,61)

Since The Virgin Suicides is cobbled together through heresay, interviews, diary entries, personal contact, and avid surveillance, the answers to many questions remain unanswered, only assumed. In the end, we have pieces of the puzzle, but gaps remain no matter how we put the pieces together. The heart of the matter is only known to the dead. The narrator’s obsession, combined with the mystery surrounding the girls, makes the novel very riveting. Added to the surreal quality is the community’s nonchalance toward the final suicides, as if they expect them to happen. In between the lines, with such shocking and elegiac sadness, Eugenides implies the emotional abuse suffered by the girls, revealing everything they don’t know how to tell the world. The Virgin Suicides is about the poignancy of adolescence, specifically when the version of the world their parents render for them is not one these adults believe in. The cluelessness of the school and callous indifference of the neighbors are the most chilling reality. The hypnotic narrative voice transports readers to a mythic realm where fate holds sway. By turns lyrical and portentous and elegiac, the novel insinuates itself into our minds as a powerful drama even though the questions remain unanswered.

249 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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11 Responses

  1. I love this review and analyses! I read The Virgin Suicides a long time ago and you’re making me think it’s time I reread it to see how I find it now.

    • Thanks Amy. I thought the style is completely different from Middlesex, which is more figurative and metaphoric. Virgin Suicides reads like a straight-forward true crime account from an outsider. Eugenides is definitely a favorite author.

  2. I really want to read this one. I haven’t read Middlesex either and I just got a signed copy of The Marriage Plot so I am way overdue to read one of his books!

  3. It’s brilliant isn’t it. I have to admit I felt a bit depressed when I stopped reading this book (and the impatient me realy just wants to know WHY they did it) but I have loved Eugenides ever since I read it.

    • I think that we never find out from the girls the reason why they take their lives makes the book all the more haunting. From between the lines we somehow know the cause of the tragedies.

  4. This is one of my favorite books to read.

  5. […] half of the novel puts Benjy’s tale into a clear and kaleidoscopic perspective, as if thThe Virgin Suicidese whole story suddenly becomes actual to one at a single moment. The effect that the obscurity […]

  6. […] books include The Translation of the Bones by Francesca Kay (scheduled to release Jan 2012),  The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, and The Space Between Us by Thrity […]

  7. […] to return to Darlington Hall? Would you give yourself a chance to love? To the virgin sisters from The Virgin Suicides: Did you all commit suicides to protest the suffocating environment that your mother impose on all […]

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