The Virgin Suicides
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
RRP: $19.95 (AUD)
In a sleepy suburb in 1970s Detroit, a group of teenage boys watch with an obsessive awe the five Lisbon daughters who live across the road. Beautiful, eccentric, stifled, hidden; the girls cause a neighbourhood uproar when 13-year-old Cecelia, the youngest, tries to slit her wrists in the bathtub.
Many years later, the boys recall the events of that year, and how the Lisbon girls flourished and faded before their eyes – taking their own lives one by one – as the boys struggled to understand them, to save them; to love them.
How I liked it
Well I said I wanted to read Eugenides after seeing him speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year. Now I have, and I’m glad I did.
Obviously this is not a “happy story”. It’s a story that has prompted some to wonder why anyone would write about it. (The answer, by the way, is that Eugenides knew a babysitter who apparently told him she and her sisters had contemplated killing themselves, and he thought it sounded interesting.) Some people love this book. Some hate it.
I don’t fall into either camp. Rather, this book engenders in me a feeling of immense respect for the author. Whether you love it or hate it, I think it’s hard to disagree this is the work of a truly skilled writer. The images are evocative and crystal clear. The language is beautifully handled. The concept – again, regardless of what you think of it – is certainly original.
It’s a novel that makes you think. It really tells you a story. It’s the kind of novel you can get a lot from as a reader; but perhaps even more from as a writer.
The themes are complex and the story is both over-explained (we find out in the first sentence that all the girls kill themselves, so there are no surprises there) and at the same time you’re left with the feeling it’s not explained at all. I like this in a novel. It gives me something to ponder … and to debate at dinner parties.
I loved the idea of using the first person plural (“we”) as the narrator – a technique that has been likened to the “chorus” in Greek tragedy – and I love the fact that you don’t find out straight away who “we” are.
Because you already know how it all ends there’s a terrific heightening tension as the novel progresses, as you wait for something terrible to happen. It draws you in even as you wonder why; I found myself reading it with the sort of horrified fascination with which you might watch a replay of a terrible natural disaster on the news. You know what’s coming, you know it’s awful, but you can’t look away.
All this said, there was a point at which I felt the story started to sag – somewhere a little over halfway – which is why I’ve left off the last star. It felt for just a moment like Eugenides had got a bit carried away with the description (which is excellent, but I can only take so much, after all, before something has to actually happen). I almost put it down at that point. Fortunately for me I didn’t, and the story reasserted itself soon after.
Final conclusions… While it’s a slim book, it’s certainly not “light” reading; but I really thought this was a fascinating, thoughtful book, and it did make me want to read some more of Eugenides’ work.
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