I 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.
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.
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