Review: The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

9780312428815I was so excited to receive The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides as part of the Picador Book Club on Twitter.  I read Eugenides’ Middlesex two years ago, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2003, so I was really happy to get this book and started it as soon as it landed on my doorstep.

First published in 1993 and set in a quiet Detroit suburb, this book is about the Lisbon girls, 5 daughters in an unusual family who all commit suicide over the course of one year. It’s told from the perspective of a group of neighborhood boys years after the suicides; boys who became obsessed with what was happening in the Lisbon household and who were always watching and peering out their windows for clues. Boys who would have given their right arms to be close to these young women.

“They were short, round-buttocked in denim, with roundish cheeks that recalled that same dorsal softness. Whenever we got a glimpse, their faces looked indecently revealed, as though we were used to seeing women in veils. No one could understand how Mr. And Mrs. Lisbon had produced such beautiful children.”

Cecelia Lisbon is the first sister to commit suicide, followed a year later by Lux, Bonnie, Mary, and Therese. Cecelia is the youngest at 13. She fails at her first suicide attempt but succeeds quite spectacularly the second time around.

The girls’ motivations are never explained.  Maybe they’re depressed, maybe they’re disturbed, maybe they are stifled by the weight of their overbearing parents and can’t take it anymore.  Maybe not.  We’ll never know, because we aren’t hearing from them. The story is told by the boys and what they can remember, what they’ve assumed or picked up from talking to others, and what artifacts they were able to salvage from the home when it was cleared out after the family left the neighborhood. These boys knew the minute details of the girls lives- what kind of lipstick they wore, what feminine products they used, what music they listened to, games they played, food they ate, clothes they wore. But all their knowledge was from afar; they didn’t know the first thing about who they were or why they did what they did anymore than the media that swooped in to cover the story.

Jeffrey Eugenides, author of The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex

Jeffrey Eugenides, author of The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex

This book is really unusual, with comic moments and haunting passages. It’s bizarre, too, in its subject matter and structure, told as sort of a research report by this group of nameless boys. I enjoyed the setting since I grew up in the Detroit area, and details about fish flies, burning leaves, and Dutch Elm disease are like scenes right out of my own childhood.  Mr. Eugenides grew up in Detroit too and is only a few years older than I am, so it makes sense that he was able to capture the feeling of place so authentically.

This is an internal type of book; weird and wonderful and dark. A movie was made in 1999 with James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Josh Hartnett, Danny DeVito, and Kirsten Dunst as Lux Lisbon. I’m not sure how I missed hearing about it, but then again, my kids were babies at the time and I didn’t get out much. I’m going to see if I can get it on Netflix. Here’s a link to the trailer for the movie– I can’t embed it but you might want to check it out.  It looks really good.

42 Responses

  1. Thanks for sharing your review. I received this book this week and am looking forward to reading it. I loved Middlesex and had my f2f group read it last year.

    • I’ll be looking for your review! I wouldn’t say I loved Middlesex- I thought it was too long and the scene with the dad and uncle (the car chase) I thought was ridiculous- but I liked Cal and enjoyed the book. Would have been a good one to discuss in a book club.

  2. The movie is really good. Sofia’s Coppola’s adaptation is really interesting in that it gives you most of the story from the Lisbon girls’ point of view. You get to see them as the girls they are rather than the girls the boys who admire them imagine them to be. It’s a really great contrast.

    • Wow, they did the movie from a totally different perspective!? That’s so strange. I have to get my hands on the movie.

      • Don’t get me wrong, the movie IS told from the boys point of view. When I say you get a different perspective in the movie, I mean the very nature of the medium allows you to view the girls actions from an unbiased stand point. You watch the film through your own eyes, not the eyes of the narrator. And Sofia Coppola uses the medium to show you aspects of the girls stories that the boys simply aren’t privy to.

        A good example is the scene where the boys are playing records to the Lisobn girls over the phone. The scene occurs exactly as it is written in the book, but in the film we get to see what is going on in the Lisbon girls’ bedroom as they choose what records to play. It’s a heartbreaking scene because you can clearly see the girls reaching out, trying so hard to be seen and known and saved, and the boys just aren’t mature enough to know how to catch them.

  3. This is one of my favourite books ever. I’m so glad you enjoyed it too! And I think you’ll also enjoy the movie. Sofia Coppola really captured the feel of the book.

  4. I liked this book, but enjoyed Middlesex by this author even more.

  5. This is definitely on my tbr list. I think I saw the movie years ago, but I’d like to read the book before I see the movie again.

  6. I’ve been really impressed with Picador. They seem to make very quality selections.

  7. Unlike iread, I really couldn’t stand the movie. Kirsten Dunst just grates on me. Have you seen it, Lisa?

  8. What an interesting premise and it’s interesting that it’s the boys’ story and not the any of the girls.

    • It really was interesting- like they were looking for clues and trying to come up with an accurate picture of who these girls are/were.

  9. I’ve heard the title before, but never really knew what it was about. It sounds kind of- creepy. But fascinating, too.

  10. I loved Middlesex, but this one kind of creeped me out. I don’t think I ever got over the subject…or the fact that we don’t really know why the girls committed suicide.

  11. I loved Middlesex too, but stayed away from this one because the subject matter didn’t appeal to me. After reading your review, I may just give it a chance. Great review!

  12. I have not read this (but want to) but I was extremely intrigued by the movie. In fact, it was this movie that showed me how HOT Josh Hartnett is (I had been wondering abt his appeal…) I really thought the movie was well done. I loved reading Middlesex but – I have way too many books I WANT to read!

    Be watching soon (a few days) for my The Awakening review…

  13. Loved both the book and the movie. As far as I remember, the movie didn’t receive a lot of press when it came out – I only caught it when it came on HBO. I thought the movie was a great complement to the book.

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  15. […] has been a good week for reading.  I finished Truth & Beauty, read and reviewed The Virgin Suicides, got about 2/3rds of the way through Beach Trip for our Summer Reading Series, and read about 100 […]

  16. […] has been a good week for reading. I finished Truth & Beauty, read and reviewed The Virgin Suicides, got about 2/3rds of the way through Beach Trip for our Summer Reading Series, and read about 100 […]

  17. I read this book many years ago and LOVED it. I think he’s a beautiful writer. So many people have recommended Middlesex to me… one of these days I will read it. Glad you enjoyed this one!

  18. All I can say is wow! I had no idea that’s what that book is about. I really want to read it now.

  19. I loved Middlesex, so have long thought I ought to read this. Thanks for reminding me – I’m glad you liked it.

  20. I saw the movie years ago, and have always wanted to read the book. I am glad you reviewed this one because now it is back on my mind. I am going to put this one on my wish list. Thanks!

  21. I’ve heard of the movie but I’ve never seen it. I might have to do that since I like many of those actors.

  22. I’m not a huge fan of Kirsten Dunst myself, but I loved both the book and the movie, and definitely more than Middlesex. I’m glad you liked the book–I hope you like the movie, too. I think it was done really well.

  23. You know, I’ve heard so much about this book mainly due to the movie which I haven’t seen, BTW. Anyway, I have yet to read the book and I know I will. From what you’ve written about it, Virgin Suicides is definitely going to be worth my timw.

  24. I saw the movie and it really is a good one. It’s good you’ve read the book because the movie is a bit different. I saw it first and then read the book later…it was nice to see the differences regardless of the order.

    Nice review. I’m glad you liked the book. It really is an odd little story but very interesting.

    -Lauren

  25. In high school, a group of friends and I snuck a copy of The Virgin Suicides film into one friend’s basement and completely lost ourselves in our contraband experience! My parents would never have let me see it, of course, and that made it even more thrilling.

    I remember the movie being so haunting, jarring and oddly beautiful… and many of those images stick with me today!

    I grabbed the book not long after that — also contraband — and made my way through it quickly. I remember loving it, but it’s been so long I couldn’t have told you much about it anymore. Your review definitely reawakened my memory! It was a very painful, often funny but sad story… maybe I’ll re-read it one of these days. Awesome review!🙂

  26. I really enjoyed Middlesex and have been wanting to read this one for awhile now. I’ve heard quite a number of mixed reviews about both the book and the movie. It sounds like something I would really like though. Thanks for the great review, Lisa.

  27. I’ve been hesitant about this book because I HATED the movie, but after I enjoyed Middlesex so much I’m contemplating reading it.

  28. Terrific review, Lisa!

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