Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Fleeting Trials of Youth: A Book Review on The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Lisbon girls have left their mark on the world despite their short time in it. After the initial attempted suicide by the youngest Lisbon, Cecilia, the girls and their parents come under the scrutiny of their community and they become the obsession of a group of boys who continuously look back to their youth in the seventies and wonder where things went wrong for a group of girls that had their whole lives before them.

I try to make it a habit to read the book before I watch the movie. Unfortunately, in this case, I saw the movie before I read the book. My apologies, Jeffrey Eugenides. Either way, I found my way to The Virgin Suicides and since my reading it, the writing, the story, has haunted me. The ideas behind the writing evoke a strong sense of tragedy and yet, as a reader you're sucked into the lives of these girls seen in the pieces put together by the boys that admired them.

The writing is lyrical. For a debut, this book impresses in more ways than one. The choice of using an anonymous narrator who for the duration of the novel presents the "evidence" he and his friends have gathered from the remnants of the lives of the doomed Lisbon girls is at times unsettling. As a reader, one finds that the pieces these boys gathered from the lives of these girls borders on the voyeuristic and the obsessive. At one point in the beginnings of this novel, one boy talks about how he wished to bring back a used tampon he'd seen in the Lisbon girls' family bathroom for his friends to see, not because he found it disgusting but because he wished for his friends to witness the beauty of something that had been so intimately acquainted with the girls they wished to know. It's the kind of devotion that seems unnatural and yet it demonstrates the lengths these boys would go through to assemble the various parts of the group's careful investigation, and what they've managed to build is an account of a tragedy that encompasses the book we readers hold in our hands.

The type of obsession these boys had has, by their own admission, ruined them for life, leaving them wishing for their wives to morph into a Lisbon girl. Over the course of their lives, these boys, now men, search for the essence and beauty they saw in each sister within the faces of every female encounter they've ever had. The devotion to detail for this group of boys is astounding. They have a collection of evidence, numbered from 1 to 97, that ranges from bits of old makeup that belonged to one sister to the specimen slides that belonged to another. They keep their evidence closed up in bags, envelopes and suitcases, bringing them out when they feel the need to go over the facts of those terrible losses again, to try to decipher the reasoning behind why this group of sisters chose such a fate.

They've gone to great lengths to gather testimonials, interviewing anyone they can manage to track down, including the bereaved parents of the unfortunate sisters. Names float in and out of this narration, their purpose to fully flesh out the details of the lives of the Lisbon sisters who are kept at a distance for a good portion of the book. They are always just on the fringe of the world of the anonymous narrator, within touching distance even, and yet the group of boys so obsessed with these sisters always fail to finally make the lasting kind of contact with the object of their desires.

The characters given the most attention are, of course, the Lisbon family. The plot revolves around the initial suicide of the youngest daughter, Cecilia, who killed herself at the age of 13. Cecilia's life turning point is given to the reader in incremental amounts, with details having been gathered from supposed witnesses present at the discovery of Cecilia in the bathtub, hospital workers who were there during her arrival and treatment, and the psychiatrist who worked with Cecilia when she was in the hospital. She's written off as the strange one, even by her own sisters, and yet her death is the event that starts the spiraling that ends a year later with her sisters following her example into death. As the suicide begins to take its toll on the various Lisbons left, the anonymous narrator provides insight into the various differences gradually recognized between the remaining siblings, as before the death of Cecilia, the boys had believed the girls interchangeable from a distance.

Therese, the eldest at 17, is the brainy sister, readying herself to go off to college. Mary comes next at age 16, and is slowly revealed to be the sister more intensely focused on makeup and social image, despite the fact that her mother has forbidden all of the Lisbon girls from wearing makeup or revealing clothing. Bonnie, aged 15, is quiet and religious, the sister with the rosary always in her pocket and who had continuously switched between lessons on various musical instruments for a multitude of reasons before their harrowing loss of their youngest sister. Lux, aged 14, finishes out the group of sisters, and is seen as the more emotionally astute of her siblings regarding peer interactions, and is interested in rock n' roll, cigarettes, manic crushes and filling her need for intimate connections with random guys. While each sister had her strengths and interests, the death of Cecilia is depicted as placing a pall over the rest of the family which in turn leads to their alienation at school and stricter lock-down rules at home.

Mr. Lisbon is the math teacher at the school that his daughters attend. Various boys that had visited the family homestead returned to the group assembling the evidence with the belief that Mr. Lisbon wished for the chance to have more boys around the house, as he was the only male in a home full of burgeoning women. Mrs. Lisbon is revealed as the more religiously concerned of the couple, enforcing strict rules on her daughters that her husband may disagree with but will never openly object to. Together, the Lisbon parents are both devastated by their loss and confused over the proceedings, unaware of the possibility that any part of their involvement may have led to the death of Cecilia and the following suicides of the remaining sisters.

The book explores the "year of the suicides," beginning with Cecilia's death and ending with Mary's the following year. The gathered evidence and interviews reveal snippets of truth describing the grief that the girls dealt with on a daily basis while trying to continue with their lives. They choose to stick together more often than not and one disastrous attempt at a group date to the Homecoming Dance leaves things worse off than they were before. As the story winds down, the various losses and triumphs of the neighborhood are alluded to, including the removal of the trees in the neighborhood due to Dutch elm disease, the slowly deteriorating Lisbon home and lawn and its affects on the neighbors who watch them from all sides, to the sudden outpouring of suicide statistics and attempts at healing therapy that started to circulate the school the girls attended.

Despite their best efforts, the group of boys have failed to discover the true inner workings of the Lisbon girl's minds. They've gathered evidence in the hope of finding the truth and in the end they find themselves still mourning the loss of those innocent girls that seemed to slip through their fingers before they realized the girls needed their help or any help to escape their fates. Their suicides continuously end up marred by news sources looking for the next big story and the friends and family of the boys left in the neighborhood choose to believe the media and write off the tragedy as something to be swept under the rug in light of new beginnings. Just as the boys are left without answers, the reader is left wondering at the portrait left of this suburban world. The destruction of the idyllic existence that came after the loss of the Lisbon girls signals an end of an era. While the novel gives an intimate account of various personal details belonging to the Lisbon family, in the end the book is as much about the effects of suburban life in the seventies as it is about the unraveling tragedy of one unlucky family.

Rating: 9 Stars

This is an extremely depressing book and yet I can't stop thinking about the haunting quality of the writing and the intimate portraits given on the Lisbon girls despite the fact that they were mostly seen from a distance. Their story is tragic and yet I loved this book. I'm also a big fan of the film, which I believe is a very faithful adaptation of the novel. The casting is spot-on and the narration provides the perfect clinical observation of a horrible series of events. I recommend both the book and the movie to anyone looking for something a little more tragic/dramatic/realistic to fill their reading/viewing schedule. I have both Middlesex and The Marriage Plot by Eugenides already in my possession and plan to read them as soon as my writing schedule allows.

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