Even though I saw the movie version of Jeffrey Eugenides’ literary fiction novel years ago, I never got around to reading it. The Virgin Suicides is the only book that has also been made into a movie that I kept on this year’s reading list. With so many titles to read, I figure life is too short to linger on ones already made into decent movies. A bit harsh perhaps, but the point is The Virgin Suicides made that cut due to its experimental use of narrator.
During my recent internship with a literary journal, the title of Eugenides’ novel got tossed around as a prime example of an experimental narrator. The title does indeed give everything away, and the opening lines set the dire scene:
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 tie a rope.
The appeal of a macabre story like The Virgin Suicides lies in the “we” telling the story. Years after the parents have moved away and their neglected house sold, the now-grown neighborhood boys gather to try to piece together what may have caused the five teenage daughters of a high school science teacher and a strident Catholic mother to end their lives.
The anonymous first-person plural narrator captures the perspective of the teenage boys who become infatuated by the sheltered Lisbon girls. This technique creates a distance between the family’s emotional turmoil and the reader’s tendency to judge. The author’s choice to put such a set of filters in place allows a more authentic atmosphere to develop around the way the deaths of the Lisbon girls leave their mark on the 1970s community. This allows the author to highlight how outsiders can never really know the details of such situations, but obsess over it all the same.
In essence, The Virgin Suicides is a coming of age novel, but it also functions as an exploration of what it means to live. The reader continually wonders about events right along with the boys. Who’s to blame, if anyone? After the youngest daughter Cecelia’s failed attempt to slash her wrists, the girls later hold a chaperoned party where the boys are invited. On that night, Celia succeeds by throwing herself out the window and impaling herself on the iron fence.
The decline of the family sets in slowly and surely. Lux Lisbon, the prettiest of the daughters, starts seeing one of the most sought after boys at their school. It’s finally agreed that she can go to a dance as long as the three remaining sisters have dates as well. Lux ends up not making curfew. The mother then reacts by pulling the girls out of school, and their father is eventually forced to take a leave of absence. Ever-watchful, the boys start to observe Lux’s antics:
It was crazy to make love on the roof at any time, but to make love on the roof in winter suggested derangement, desperation, self-destructiveness far in excess of any pleasure snatched beneath the dripping trees.
The Virgin Suicides is just one of those books that is sad and beautiful at the same time. Despite the depressing subject matter, it’s still possible for the reader to come away with a sense of wonder regarding how we all react to the many situations life throws our way. The language carries its own haunting beauty and poetic rhythm as well.
It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree-house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together
What was your reaction to the book or the movie? Why is it that we are often drawn to seemingly sad stories that make a statement about how we live life?
For more insight, read my Book Review Criteria. Please share responsibly. Jeri Walker, 2014.
I remember watching this movie. I came away from it with mixed feelings. So sad… No answers…
Cheryl, I can imagine the challenge the author faced in handling the narrative by choosing a narrative perspective that didn’t allow for answers.
The are answers all throughout the book. Well at least clues. I won’t tell you any of them cause I don’t want to spoil it for you or anyone who hasn’t read the book. Basically, n a way, the Lisbon girls were just not meant for this world.
Cynthia, so true. The book does leave a good number of clues that help show ways the Lisbon girls are not cut out for the life they were born into.
Yea. The boys were idiots. Looking for an explanation and answer when the girls are obviously miserable because they wanted to fit in but were never aloud to. I’m puzzled as to why so many people are puzzled by the Suicides. The boys told the girl’s story, telling us what the girls didn’t know how to tell the world. They lived isolated in this upper middle class neneighborhood were they throw debutant balls. They couldn’t run away as they never were allowed to finish highschool, the mother treated them like crap, the father was a wimp, the horny boys didn’t understand them. Now they idolize the girls because they are now safely dead and nobody has to deal with the girl’s problems and troubling reality of the Lisbon family now that it’s over.
Great review. For years, I have been one of those “I’d rather read the book” people, then of course I end up with dozens of books and movies still unseen, although I typically get around to it. I have never read the book nor seen the movie (perhaps avoiding an overwhelming sense of sadness that could be brought on by the subject?) but the title has always intrigued me, I think I will pick it up.
I recently read, The Fault In Our Stars by John Green, upon recommendation from my teenage daughters “bff”. Although you may be striking books with movies off of your list, I would highly recommend it if you haven’t already read it!
Stephanie, I was on the fence about Green’s book. Since you speak so highly of it, I might put in my audio book cue. At least that way I would be able to listen to it before the movie comes out. It’s fairly likely I’ll see that one when it’s still in theaters.
A great review. It makes me want to read the book.
Thanks Bindu. I included quite a few direct quotes in this one because the author’s language is so lovely.
I haven’t seen the movie or read the book. It sounds interesting and intriguing at the same time. The coming of age thing could bring back some fond, and not so fond, memories of my early adolescent years… LOL.
Susan, many aspects of this book made me think about my experiences as a teacher. We always only know so much about each other, and can never be privy to the more private areas of most people’s lives we come into contact with. I used to think about that a lot when I was still in the classroom. Nine times out of then, when you meet the parents, a lot about a child’s behavior becomes clear. The author only makes that partially possible with this book by only be able to show what the boys have witnessed regarding the parents’ conduct.
Great review! I read this book a long time ago, and had forgotten most of it, except that I loved it at the time. It may be time for a re-read. I still haven’t seen the movie, so I should try that too. Thanks Jeri! 🙂
Christine, you should give it a re-read. I’m sure I will someday. The language is so powerful. I love it when I can notice new things about a book each time I read it. This is definitely that type of story.
Eugenides is a gifted writer and this book is on my shelf in queue to be read. I won’t see the film until I’ve read it. The two sentences you pulled out say so much about his talent, don’t they? Thanks for another great review.
Jagoda, this is the first of his books I’ve read. I’m going to save Middlesex until later in the year, but from what I’ve heard about it, I will like it even better than The Virgin Suicides.
My girls both love stories like this and I think may have actually read the book. I never really understood it but my oldest daughter really likes stuff like this. It seems she can’t read any book without some kind of death, love, triangle going on. I think one of her favorite stories of all time is A Walk to Remember. Again the death/love triangle.
I mean I honestly can’t see anyone being so keen on all this morbid death and stuff. It’s strange, strange I say.
Jon, haha coming from the man who is keeping a tally on the front page of his blog of the many ways his characters meet their deaths…
ohhhh, intriguing. I think I’d like this book. Never heard of it or the movie before. I always get the coolest books to read through you! Thanks for the great review.
Beth, this is the type of story that builds to a slow burn, but the power of the writing makes up for the quieter nature of the plot.
Now I’m intrigued, after reading your review. Not familiar with the first person plural narrator perspective, can’t think of anything I’ve read that uses this kind of device. I can see where it would make the actions seem further apart from the reader. I’m guessing that the narrators wonder if they had anything to do with the suicides? I didn’t see the movie or read the book – but now I definitely want to!
Krystyna, the narrators do spend a good deal of time wondering what they could have done to help the girls.
Sounds very interesting. Was the movie played out in the same manners as the book?
Krystle, the book and movie are very similar. I find that usually tends to be the case when shorter books are adapted for the screen.
Never saw the movie and the book has been on my list for soooooo long I’d forgotten about it! Thanks for the reminder…great review and now I want to dig it out and dig into it!
Jacquie, it’s so worth the read. The way the author uses language is beyond impressive and dare say I am more than a bit jealous!
I have read the book and watched the movie and I was extremely sad each time. I was amazed at the amount of emotions I had reading and watching it and that to me is a plus.
Niekka, I definitely agree that all those emotions that get called up by books like this are only a plus.
Sorry so late to the party! The Virgin Suicides has been on my likely unachievable (if I just made that word up then I will own it) list of movies to watch. You nailed it right off for me, “The title does indeed give everything away..” I have come to like your movie-book comparisons the best, Jeri. I think what fascinated me the most is does the book address the issue we have in our society? I like your second reader question. Hmm…you have me thinking. Good post as always. Gawd, you’re an amazing reviewer 🙂
Mike, my review of this book was such a long time coming. I’m so drawn to melancholy stories, but not because of their sadness, but because ultimately such stories really do make us think about life and our place in the universe in general. Heavy stuff 😉
I love your reviews because there are so many good books out there that sometimes I don’t know where to start. Now I have my next one! I’m reading The Book Thief right now, and have been intrigued by its narrator as well so this was a timely article for me.
Meredith, The Book Thief is still on my to be read list, and I hope I can get to it before the movie ends up coming from NetFlix.
Oh, after reading your review, I don’t think I would want to read the book. Too upsetting. I can’t even click on the trailer. Maybe I’ll go read some happy book about pretty elves dancing in the woods … (to paraphrase Lemony Snicket).
Leora, this one is certainly a heavy read. Based on the quality of the writing, I’m looking forward to reading Middlesex later in the year as well.
You have me hooked, another one to add to my list!
What a riveting storyline. I have no idea why. As you say it is macabre and yet I am drawn to it. I usually block out bad things as much as I can, but something about the why may have something to do with it.
Becc, I do hope you pick this one up. I’m always ecstatic when I find a writer who can balance a gripping story with beautiful use of language.
I have not read the book or seen the movie. I am not at all drawn to sad stories. I am unabashedly a happy ending girl. Well a little darkness in a completely unrealistic way works for me. I get angry when I’m sad, not joking. The title of this book alone threatens to send me into nightmare mode and as I was reading your review I kept thinking, how could she keep reading??? My husband despairs for me, but has learned to live with his more or less happy and shallow wife. 🙂 I’ll have to recommend “The Virgin Suicides” to him.
Debra, your reaction here is priceless. The humor is so ironic given the book’s title, yet fitting to what you know about yourself as the reader. My answer: The beautiful language kept me reading.