Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Virgin Suicides

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Picador, 1993
Trade Paperback, 256 pages
ISBN-13: 9780312428815
very highly recommended

From the Publisher:
This beautiful and sad first novel tells of a band of teenage sleuths who piece together the story of a twenty-year old family tragedy begun by the youngest daughter’s spectacular demise by self-defenstration, which inaugurates “the year of the suicides.”

My Thoughts:

The Virgin Suicides was Eugenides first novel. Set during the 1970s in suburban Detroit, Michigan, the novel is narrated by a group of neighborhood high school boys who revered the Lisbon sisters during that time, and try to tell their story, which is the story of the Lisbon sisters. When it begins (see quotes below) we immediately learn that all five of the teenage Lisbon daughters will commit suicide. The Lisbon girls were: Cecilia (13), Lux (14), Bonnie (15), Mary (16), and Therese (17).

The immaturity and obsessive nature of the teenage narrators lends an authenticity to the story. After the youngest succeeds in committing suicide on her second attempt, they watch the family and slowly see the sisters become isolated by their parents. Not every question is answered because what we learn about the Lisbon family and specifically the sisters, is all told from the perspective of these observant, obsessed outsiders speculating after the fact. They only have the information on what they can piece together based on what they want to know.

Eugenides is a brilliant writer. His ability helps The Virgin Suicides stand apart as a real modernist literary accomplishment. The story of the teenage girls as told by the infatuated, adolescent male narrators just feels so real, so true to life. Eugenides descriptions are incredible as he captures what the teenage boys would notice - and in doing so, perhaps, what they missed. I certainly felt that there were clues to answer the question "why?" that were missed by the boys even as we were told the story. (I've never seen the movie and don't plan too, but I certainly recommend the book.)
Very Highly Recommended


On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide-it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese-the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to lie a rope. They got out of the EMS truck, as usual moving much too slowly in our opinion, and the fat one said under his breath, "This ain't TV, folks, this is how fast we go." He was carrying the heavy respirator and cardiac unit past the bushes that had grown monstrous and over the erupting lawn, tame and immaculate thirteen months earlier when the trouble began.

Cecilia, the youngest, only thirteen, had gone first, slitting her wrists like a Stoic while taking a bath, and when they found her, afloat in her pink pool, with the yellow eyes of someone possessed and her small body giving off the odor of a mature woman, the paramedics had been so frightened by her tranquillity that they had stood mesmerized. But then Mrs. Lisbon lunged in, screaming, and the reality of the room reasserted itself: blood on the bath mat; Mr. Lisbon's razor sunk in the toilet bowl, marbling the water. The paramedics fetched Cecilia out of the warm water because it quickened the bleeding, and put a tourniquet on her arm. Her wet hair hung down her back and already her extremities were blue. She didn't say a word, but when they parted her hands they found the laminated picture of the Virgin Mary she held against her budding chest. opening

Dr. Armonson stitched up her wrist wounds. Within five minutes of the transfusion he declared her out of danger. Chucking her under her chin, he said, "What are you doing here, honey? You're not even old enough to know how bad life gets."
And it was then Cecilia gave orally what was to be her only form of suicide note, and a useless one at that, because she was going to live: Obviously, Doctor, she said, "you've never been a thirteen-year-old girl." pg. 7

The Lisbon girls were thirteen (Cecilia), and fourteen (Lux), and fifteen (Bonnie), and sixteen (Mary), and seventeen (Therese). They were short, round-buttocked in denim, with roundish cheeks that recalled that same dorsal softness. pg. 7

Whenever we saw Mrs. Lisbon we looked in vain for some sign of the beauty that must have once been hers. But the plump arms, the brutally cut steel-wool hair, and the librarian's glasses foiled us every time. We saw her only rarely, in the morning, fully dressed though the sun hadn't come up, stepping out to snatch up the dewy milk cartons, or on Sundays when the family drove in their paneled station wagon to St. Paul's Catholic Church on the Lake. On those mornings Mrs. Lisbon assumed a queenly iciness. Clutching her good purse, she checked each daughter for signs of makeup before allowing her to get in the car, and it was not unusual for her to send Lux back inside to put on a less revealing top. None of us went to church, so we had a lot of time to watch them, the two parents leached of color, like photographic negatives, and then the five glittering daughters in their homemade dresses, all lace and ruffle, bursting with their fructifying flesh. pg. 8

He moved with the sluggish swagger of urban predators who smelled of cologne and had manicured nails. pg. 11

We didn't understand why Cecilia had killed herself the first time and we understood even less when she did it twice. pg. 32


Anna said...

When I read this book I don't think I was old enough to really appreciate it. I thought was just okay, but now I'm thinking I missed something.

Lori L said...

It could be one of those books that is best appreciated with age... but I have no way to judge that at this point, LOL!

raidergirl3 said...

I don't know - I read this just a few years ago, after I read Middlesex which I loved, but it left me cold. Or bored. The nice writing couldn't overcome the boring story for me.
I'm glad you enjoyed it though!

Lori L said...

I loved Middlesex too... Maybe it was better for me because I waited and read The Virgin Suicides several years after reading Middlesex.

Meg @ write meg! said...

I read this one years ago and have been haunted by it since! Thanks for letting me relive the story through the passages you pulled. So tragic, sad and melancholy -- but also beautifully written.

Lori L said...

Meg, I actually have The Virgin Suicides starred on my personal list of books for this year - that means it is a potential top ten book of the year.