Reviewer: Tall, Short & Tiny
Before reading The Virgin Suicides, I knew of it only as a film starring Kirsten Dunst; when I purchased a copy of the book second-hand, she graced the cover. Having not seen the film, and having heard very little about the story, I was going into this read completely open-minded.
The novel is about the suicides of the five Lisbon girls, living with their parents in suburban America. It is narrated by one or more (this is left quite ambiguous) middle-aged men who were teenage boys at the time of the suicides; men who have been infatuated by, and obsessed with, the girls and their deaths for more than twenty years.
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.
The Lisbons are a catholic family with five daughters: Cecilia, Lux, Bonnie, Mary and Therese. Mr Lisbon is a teacher, and Mrs Lisbon is a housewife; from the outside, they appear to be your normal middle-class family. However, their lives are changed one summer when 13-year-old Cecilia attempts suicide by cutting her wrists; weeks later, at a party at their home, she jumps from a second-story window and dies. The reason for her suicide and the effects on her family become the neighbourhood’s main point of gossip, and the narrator(s) use information from these neighbours as they try to piece everything together, decades later.
When 15-year-old Lux misses her curfew after a school dance, her parents pull the girls out school and to all intents-and-purposes, the family disappear from public life. The house becomes derelict; none of the Lisbons leave the house, and no one goes to visit.
After the remaining daughters successfully end their lives (three of them on the same night), their parents leave the neighbourhood; their belongings are thrown away or sold, and the young men scavenge through the remains, searching for anything they can claim as evidence in their quest to understand what went on in that house.
This is rather a dark novel, touching on an extremely sensitive issue. What makes it most poignant and tragic is that it reflects on normal life; the Lisbons are an average middle-class family, living in a normal neighbourhood in a normal suburb. The fact that their neighbours react to the suicides with such fascination highlights that this is the kind of place where things like that just don’t happen, and I wonder if Eugenides was commenting on this aspect of society as a whole?
Everybody had a story as to why she tried to kill herself. Mrs Buell said the parents were to blame. “That girl didn’t want to die,” she told us. “She just wanted out of that house.” Mrs Scheer added, “She wanted out of that decorating scheme.”
I was left feeling a little disappointed at the end of the novel, and I’m not 100% sure why. Perhaps I was hoping for more clarity on the deaths of the young girls, more reasons, more information. I usually don’t mind when loose ends are left untied, but for some reason, it left me feeling a bit empty with this story.
I can’t say it was an enjoyable read, but I did like Eugenide’s prose and the way the descriptive nature added to the mystique of the story, thus I give it 3.5 out of 5 stars.
I felt that way a bit about the movie and was hoping the book would shed more light. I appreciate not having everything neatly tied off, but with the subject matter being as such it just seem purposefully baiting with no pay off. Is it more about what the suicides meant to them (the men in love with them?)
It’s more about the men/boys trying to work out what happened, without really knowing what went on inside the minds of the girls, so yes, I think you’re probably right. I also think it was an interesting commentary on how people are morbidly fascinated by such events, how everyone has an opinion and it therefore becomes “okay” to gossip and conjecture about it.
This makes me more curious so I want to get a copy and have my chance to decipher the story myself…