Another one bought from a second-hand bookshop at AbeBooks. With a hideous cover basically consisting of a still from the movie. I’ve actually seen the movie years ago and liked it a lot. Even if I don’t remember much of it now. So I was naturally curious about the book.
The story is quite simple we’re in the 1970’s in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, the world we come to know consisted of a few streets in the close neighborhood. Our narrators are a group of unnamed men, recollecting a specific period in their teens. When an ambulance arrives for the body of Cecilia Lisbon, who killed herself, the men reminisce on the events leading to that tragedy. They also tell us of the subsequent 18 months, that separated Cecilia’s first attempt at her life and the point at which Mrs. and Mr. Lisbon leave the neighborhood.
The Lisbon girls, as they are called throughout the book are: 13-year-old Cecilia, 14-year-old Lux, 15-year-old Bonnie, 16-year-old Mary, and 17-year-old Therese. They live with their father who is a maths teacher in the local school and their stay at home mother. Often they are described as a group, as they stick together. As if they are one entity rather than five distinct personalities. Eugenides makes some effort at characterizing them, but it feels very superficial. And this may as well be the point because really the book is about the men watching women. Outsiders trying to peek in and understand, what they can never get. So they invent what they don’t know.
It is not really the book about what led to the Lisbon Girls killing themselves. It’s a book about boys and men shaken by this experience. About men refusing to accept that they cannot understand everything. So they collect countless ‘exhibits’ as if a piece of string, a photo or a lock of hair and shed any light on what happened. What they never do is ask. No one asks. Cecilia kills herself and no one asks.
Then after a fateful prom, the girls are literally locked in the decaying home and no one asks. The whole neighborhood can smell the rank stench coming out of the house, and no one asks. Everyone knows that Lux has sex with multiple older men, and no one asks. And yet the narrators dare to try and understand years later, when there’s no longer point in it, what happened.
They have this ethereal, idealized picture of the girls, punctuated with some real encounters, that prove their every assumption wrong. But still, those idealizations and assumptions always come back, because that’s how they want to see them. It really doesn’t matter who the Lisbon girls were.
It is a book that may have been perceived as romantic idealization at the time it was written. But now it is simply violent. Violent by inaction, violent by manipulating and appropriating the story, violent by really not caring about the girls, only about what their lives and deaths did to the boys.
I’m sure my reading of it is marked by the books I read in the weeks before. Hence my anger, but even if you take a less feminist approach something is wrong with the whole setup. What is interesting though, is that I don’t level here an accusation at Eugenides, I think he brilliantly exposed the wrongs. The book stands the test of time, by revealing the hidden layers, what may have been missed then is very clear now. I was sometimes annoyed by the woozy prose, but it served its purpose of building the hazy childhood memories atmosphere. As you can see I am not in love with it, but I understand why it’s important.
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska @vkphotospace.com
3 thoughts on “The Virgin Suicides – Jeffrey Eugenides”
I read this many years ago and remember liking it and feeling very affected by it, but I don’t remember all the details and issues you bring up. I’m glad to hear it holds up, I should try to read it again. fantastic review.
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Thank you! Yes, it definitely holds up. I was just surprised how different my reading of it was now, compared to how I felt about the movie years ago. It is rare that books can stand the test of time by revealing new layers
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