Book #35

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

The shocking thing about the girls was how nearly normal they seemed when their mother let them out for the one and only date of their lives. Twenty years on, their enigmatic personalities are embalmed in the memories of the boys who worshipped them and who now recall their shared adolescence: the brassiere draped over a crucifix belonging to the promiscuous Lux; the sisters' breathtaking appearance on the night of the dance; and the sultry, sleepy street across which they watched a family disintegrate and fragile lives disappear.

This is by all means a strange wee book which I struggled to understand straight away. The blurb advises the novel details the story of five sisters, each one of them killing themselves within the space of a year. It sounds spectacular, but it really isn’t what you’d expect it to be.

I was initially quite bored with the plot, and having read this as a younger person remembered barely enjoying it on my previous attempt. Eugenides tells us of the lives of the people in the town, describes the surroundings and talks of insects and trees frequently. Months passed, nothing happened. This was all very dull to me, until I realised Eugenides was doing this on purpose. Life in this town is so devastatingly unremarkable that the girls' suicides seem so spectacular and exciting. The dullness contributes to their depression, and becomes a factor pushing them towards their final acts. The girls are shown as leading ordinary, fairly boring lives just like the rest of us. Eugenides tries to cut through the wall separating normalcy and tragedy by showing us that even the most everyday mundane features of life can contribute to disasters such as these.

My favourite thing about this novel is the narrator's voice; first person plural. It's absolutely perfect for the tone of the novel, and conveys exactly how much the Lisbon girls were loved as mysterious entities from afar. I particularly adored the fact that the reader never truly knows quite how many boys contribute to the 'we'. It allows us to be dragged in with them and experience the same emotions they do, mostly confusion. The best part, however, is that throughout the novel we think the narrators are a group of schoolboys, when in actual fact they are all now grown men reminiscing. It's quite chilling to think of, but why wouldn't such a tragedy have such an impact?

I liked that the boys collected items to add to their memories, labelling them 'Exhibit #47' and so on. What was particularly sobering was that these artefacts began to stiffen, rust, fade, disintegrate, and go missing. I felt this was somewhat reflective of the boys' memories of the sisters. The boys express their despair at having all of these small trinkets, but still being unable to piece together the girls' reasons for suicide. The longer this takes, the more their memories fade and their collection grows dusty. Perhaps here Eugenides is saying that the impact on these boys wasn't a punch to the stomach, but a gradual accumulation of hurt, another stone on their shoulders each day. And the question has to be asked: which is worse?

This isn't the story of the Lisbons, but rather the story of the boys and how the sisters, and their deaths, affected them through their schooldays all the way up to middle age. This isn't your average run of the mill story on suicide which you can describe to your friends as, "Oh, beautiful and sad, I cried!" This book is asking why we feel the need to pretend to be happy constantly. This has to be concentrated on at length. It's about how suicide affects people, communities, and families. It's about the fact that even the smallest issue can drive someone to despair. Suicide is not to be glamourised, and Eugenides does not do this with The Virgin Suicides.

This is a gorgeous, but strange and macabre novel. I would only recommend this to those who would like a thought-provoking read; it absolutely is not what it looks like.