Last week, I finished reading The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. Before I began I knew the title, but not much about the book itself. The concept sounded intriguing, albeit disturbing. So I thought I would put another so-called modern classic under my belt.
The Virgin Suicides is the story of a group of teenage boys who become infatuated with a group of sisters, after the youngest girl commits suicide. The Lisbon sisters live under the constant scrutiny of their parents who are extremely conservative and overprotective. As the title suggests (and this is not a spoiler, it’s announced on page 1), the four remaining girls end up taking their own lives. The book is about the boys reflecting, decades after the fact, and trying to understand the Lisbons and what went on in their world.
I’ll be honest; I didn’t particularly enjoy reading this novel. Not necessarily because it was poorly written, but because it was uncomfortable and depressing. I guess I should have expected that one, right? Nothing much actually happens apart from the first suicide at the beginning and the remaining four at the end. It’s one of those Catcher in the Rye, observational, loaded with symbolism and deeper meaning affairs that you might study in an English class. You can see the point the author is trying to make – he paints this typical, boring, American suburban setting and introduces a sudden, unexplainable tragedy that the residents instinctively dissociate themselves from. People are uncomfortable with despair. They would rather pretend that life is happy and perfect and blame unsavoury outside elements for all the bad things that happen. It’s thought-provoking for sure.
One thing that really disturbed me was the boys’ obsession with the Lisbon sisters. The degree to which they fixate on them didn’t make sense to me. They spend their nights discussing what might be going on inside the house, they fantasize about what they would do with the girls, they collect their possessions – journals, lipstick, hair from a hairbrush and keep them preserved for years after the suicides. I guess because the Lisbons are only allowed minimal interaction with the outside world, they become these unknowable, sexualised beings. Things only intensify when, eventually, the girls are confined to the house at all times. Their home falls into disrepair and they are forced to live in this squalid prison. I suppose it’s a mark of Eugenides’ good writing, but I felt claustrophobic just reading about it.
Some good points: content aside, The Virgin Suicides is readable. The writing style is fairly accessible and it’s not terribly lengthy. Because you know that the suicides are going to happen, morbid curiosity motivates you to read on. It’s like watching a train and knowing it’s going to crash – you just don’t know how and why. Interestingly, the book is written in the first person plural i.e. ‘we did this, we did that’. The boys tell the story in a single voice which is quite unusual.
So I guess I am glad that I read The Virgin Suicides. It’s always good to read famous novels, expand your literary horizons and whatnot. But I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed reading it.
We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colours went together. We knew that the girls were our twins, that we all existed in space like animals with identical skins, and that they knew everything about us though we couldn’t fathom them at all. We knew, finally, that the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love and even death, and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them.”