The Short Version: The story of the five Lisbon sisters, young girls growing up in the suburbs of Detroit in the early part of the second half of the last century, and the boys who were bewitched by them. After Cecilia takes her own life – unexpectedly, suddenly – the Lisbon family begins to fall apart while the boys of the town attempt to understand these beautiful, complicated girls.
The Review: I’ve always believed that certain books are meant for certain seasons – something about them, when you hold them in your hands, says “read me then, not now.” So it was with The Virgin Suicides: there is something summery about this book. Or perhaps not “summery” – but rather, muggy. Humid. A sense of a hot, heavy afternoon when you know that a storm will probably come later that night but for now, everything is moving slow. Even the children, who can play outside through anything, are seeking out a lemonade break or a nap in the air conditioning. And the vague sense of worry that comes from those afternoons when the world slows to a near halt – it’s just unease, not in a foreboding way or a creepy way, but just in the sense of this being something human beings aren’t built for and yet we’re living through it anyway.
This book takes place over the course of a full year – June to June, with some extension on either side give or take – but it is a summer book, without doubt. Eugenides’ prose, refined over the course of his later novels, flows here – although a bit thickly at times. He luxuriates in the fading summer light that the Lisbon girls represent, allowing his language to take on that purple haze of evening. There’d be a sense of nostalgia here, even without the narrative second-person device – the story is told from the perspective of the boys of the town, years later, having all become somewhat obsessed with the lives of these strange and beautiful young women. It’s the sort of small-town Americana you simultaneously wish for (that longing for the easier days, the glory days) and that you’re glad you got out of (that slightly cultish aspect).
Speaking of cultish (slight in-text joke – I’m not saying the girls were cult members)… all is not right in this suburban idyll. It begins with a suicide attempt – and the resulting confusion, disharmony, fear, anger, curiosity… that’s all there and correct. The town doesn’t quite know how to react and the Lisbon parents certainly don’t. But things seem to be on the up and up until that fateful party – a moment, might I add, where Eugenides’ voice asserts itself most fully and terrifically. As Cecilia climbs the stairs out of the party and heads for her swan dive, there’s a disconnect that comes not just from fading memory but from collected fading memory. In the first moment of the story, her death – horrifying in its nearly innocuous but oh-no-that-can’t-be description from the basement – seems to follow shortly on the heels of the ascent. But then, piecing it together… maybe not. The facts are unarguable but the description… well, that depends on who’s doing the describing. And that – if I didn’t already know it from his succeeding two masterworks – would’ve been the moment that I sat up and said “hmm, this Eugenides guy…”
That said, I wondered about some of the things he left a little more shrouded in the mists of time – specifically, why this all happened. We never get to the root of why Cecilia takes her own life, let alone why the other girls follow suit in the course of a single night. The latter question is more explicable by what comes in-between the two – the Lisbon household falls apart, to put it lightly, and the girls all seem to be looking for a way out. But their deaths are shocking – to us, the reader, as well as to “us”, the collective group of boys who narrate the novel and to whom we belong by the end. Or at least I felt like I did. I know the spell that gets cast over young men of high school age when faced with the beautiful, complex creatures who we, no matter how mature we might be, are light years behind. So I wondered, just as the boys wonder and continue to wonder, about why. About what happened, what we’d missed, what we had misunderstood. Nothing the Lisbon girls did seemed out of line with what’s to be expected from young women learning how to be in the world – and the parental units, while a bit harsh and lacking that understanding some of us were lucky to receive from our parents, aren’t that bad… there are no Margaret White’s here, just people as confused as their kids – they just couldn’t hide it well enough.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. This book is both an elegy and a warning. It cherishes, idolizes in a way, the simpler times – when things were complex and confusing because we were still learning and not because the world is just a screwed up place… but it also serves as a prime example of why it’s dangerous to linger on the past. The boys, having collected evidence – photos, items, interviews – in their pursuit of answers, have grown into men at this point and the world has moved on… but they haven’t. They’re still stuck, curious and confused, by these strange girls – and by the past in general. The book is, somewhat by nature, a bit oblique and while that serves to be slightly frustrating by the end, it’s also a beautiful and accomplished debut in its ability to capture so many intangibles so beautifully.