Title: The Virgin Suicides
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Date Completed: 28 August 2017
Goodreads Rating: 4 stars
The five Lisbon sisters are brought up in a strict household, and when the youngest kills herself, the oppression of the remaining sisters intensifies. As Therese, Mary, Bonnie and Lux are pulled deeper into isolation by their domineering mother, a group of neighbourhood boys become obsessed with liberating the sisters. But what the boys don’t know is, the Lisbon girls are beyond saving.
I’ve now read The Virgin Suicides twice. Both times, I read it in one sitting, over the space of around 3 hours. Both times, I’ve finished it feeling as though I’ve just read something incredible, something I can’t quite put my finger on, and yet at the same time feeling slightly detached from the whole experience. I think that feeling of detachment says more about Eugenides and his writing style than anything else could.
The genius of The Virgin Suicides is that it is told entirely from the outside. Not once do we get a glimpse inside the minds of the five Lisbon sisters. We never get to understand their motivations, their wishes, their justifications. The closest we get to them is through the imaginings of the group of males who were infatuated with the Lisbon sisters in life, and remain infatuated with them in death. We, like the boys in the novel, are forced to poke around, to draw our own conclusions, to rely on hearsay and assumptions to form a picture of the sisters in our heads. And I think this is genius. Would the book have been good if it gave the sisters a voice, allowed them to tell their own story? Of course. But it wouldn’t be the same book. And it probably wouldn’t be as atmospheric.
Reading The Virgin Suicides the first time is a very different experience to re-reading it. When you’re first reading, you’re trying to figure out the mystery along with the boys. You’re using their evidence, their accounts of the events, their perceptions, to piece together the Lisbon sisters and try to understand why they came to kill themselves. On the second reading, however, your focus is pulled more towards the boys themselves, their obsession with the girls and their simultaneous detachment from their suffering. The Virgin Suicides isn’t really about the Lisbon sisters. Their tragedy is merely used as a means to explore the attitudes the group of teenage boys held towards them, or towards women in general. It is a masterful exploration of the misunderstandings and assumptions society makes about other people, about their motivations and desires. In particular, The Virgin Suicides explores the fetishisation of teenage girls by those around them, how easy it is for unique individuals to blend into one being, devoid of any autonomy or power over the direction of their lives.
The Virgin Suicides is best devoured in one sitting. It’s almost cinematic in its delivery, and as a result it feels like something that needs to be consumed all at once, rather than spread out over multiple sittings. Upon finishing The Virgin Suicides, I had a moment of detachment, of feeling as though I was somehow separate from what was happening around me. In essence, I felt the way the novel feels: separate and isolated, desperately trying to put the pieces together to justify my own interpretation. And to me, that’s the sign of a great book.