Review: The Virgin Suicides
What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.”
”Obviously Doctor…you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl” replies Cecilia, the first of the Lisbon sisters to take her own life, when questioned on the motives for her initial suicide attempt. But for the residents of the sleepy American town, the deaths of the five Lisbon sisters remains an incomprehensible tragedy and a subject of fascination for a group of teenage boys who grew up alongside the siblings and are still in desperate search of answers. Now into middle-age, the boys are still haunted by the memory of the Lisbon sisters and resurrect the events of the past in the hope of unlocking the secret of the girls’ deaths.
Jeffrey Eugenides’ debut novel was first published in 1993 and has since become a modern classic. Its satirical depictions of white, middle-class life in the American suburbs is brought into harsh perspective by the tragic suicides of the teenage girls. Eugenides’ clever use of dark humour reflects the selfish and insensitive attitude of suburban America in which ”everyone pretended to be happy all the time.” Cecilia’s suicide is naively exploited by her neighbours with one comparing the family tragedy to his own ”heartrendering loss when his college football team failed to clinch the division title.” It is only the Lisbon’s teenage peers, trapped in their own adolescent ”wasteland,” who are able to empathise with the sisters.
The novel’s unique narrative, that re-tells the tragic story of the Lisbons from the memories of their male neighbours, gives The Virgin Suicides its refreshing perspective. Whilst Mr and Mrs. Lisbon fall into denial after the suicide of their youngest, Cecilia, the rest of the town treat the horrific event as a piece of gossip. It is only through the boys and their futile attempt to understand and rescue the girls that we are able to see their humanity.
Locked away from the outside world by their fanatically oppressive parents, most of their communication with the girls is done indirectly, but their connection to them is no less sincere. ”We knew the girls were our twins,” they recall as they read Cecilia’s diary together, ”we felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy.” They later call the girls over a period of days, taking turns to play a record down the receiver and a bond is formed without a single word spoken. This bond, that can only be shared by those in the same stage of life, reflects the turmoil of adolescence in which the joys of childhood are confronted with the harsh realities of adult life. It is with this knowledge that the sisters reach their devastating ”refusal to accept the world as it was handed down to them, so full of flaws”.
The morbid context of The Virgin Suicides could, understandably, put off many readers. However, if you shift through the novel’s, at times, horrific content you will find a profoundly honest, relatable and powerfully realistic story that speaks to all of us on some level, no matter what our personal experience may be.