Monday, November 19, 2007

The Virgin Suicides (1994)

If one of the five Lisbon sisters was crazy, it had to be Cecilia, the youngest. At least that’s what all the neighborhood boys thought when she proved them right by killing herself during the first party that the sisters had ever been allowed to host. What none of the boys expected at the time was that just one year later all four of Cecilia’s older sisters would also be dead, victims of their own bizarre suicides.

Set in 1970s Michigan, The Virgin Suicides is the tragic story of the Lisbon family, a family headed by a rigidly strict mother and a nondescript high school teacher father who produced five unexpectedly beautiful daughters. It is impossible to read this book without wondering what would drive five attractive young women to end their lives just as they were beginning. What was happening behind the closed doors of the Lisbon household that could possibly have resulted in that kind of tragedy? Jeffrey Eugenides does not provide any easy answers and, in fact, limits the reader’s knowledge of the girls to those first hand observations available to their neighbors and schoolmates.

The book is narrated by one of the group of horny young boys who live on the same street as the Lisbon family. Through their collective eyes, the reader learns of the limited school activities that the girls participated in and just how little after school contact they had with their peers. These boys actively spied on the girls, hoping to catch a glimpse of them through the windows of their upstairs bedrooms, and what we learn about the girls from them is largely based on their speculation and guess work as to what is happening in that house. The boys became obsessed with the sisters and, when one of their group successfully lobbied Mr. Lisbon to be allowed to take one of his girls to the school prom, his good intentions may have directly contributed to the ultimate destruction of the family.

Readers looking for insights about depression and suicide will be disappointed by The Virgin Suicides. Eugenides has chosen instead to emphasize how something of this magnitude can happen without anyone recognizing it, or perhaps, even having the will to stop it before it is too late. Even the young men so obsessed with their every activity were unable to see what was coming. Those closest to the girls, their parents, were so caught up in the grief of having lost their youngest daughter already that they could not stop her sisters from following her example. By limiting the reader to only the facts known to the book’s other characters, Eugenides forces one to speculate about what must have happened to cause the suicides in much the same way that others in the story speculate. The sad truth is that it is often impossible to understand what drives another person to take his own life.

I do wish that Eugenides had given the sisters more distinctive personalities. As it was, only Cecilia, the first to take her life, and Lux, the family risk taker, stand out at all. The other three girls are so interchangeable that even their classmates sometimes had a problem telling them apart. I realize that this “sameness” may have contributed to their final choices but, as a reader, I would have enjoyed knowing more about the girls before they were gone forever. That must be exactly how the neighbor boys felt.

Rated at: 3.5

14 comments:

  1. Sam, I saw this movie a few years ago. Did I enjoy it? I think it's hard to enjoy a movie that has such a depressing end. But I did think it was a good movie.

    One of these days, I will read the book. But I guess if I don't have any more "answers", then I will feel a little let down. I think that's how the movie was. And, from your review, it sounds like the book was the same!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I loved this book! I saw the movie before I read the book, so I knew the general idea, but Eugenides' writing style just bowled me over. So lyrical!

    One of my aunts got mad at me, because I mentioned it while at her house, and apparently she didn't want my cousins to hear the word 'suicide' in case it gave them ideas. Whoops.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I've heard about this book over and over (and always that people liked it, in spite of the depressing end), but this is the first time I've actually been interested in the story itself. Thanks, Sam.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Stephanie, the book offers no answers, only clues and speculation that really go nowhere in explaining how something like this could happen. I agree that it is a depressing topic. I haven't seen the movie but may pick it up sometime if I see it someplace.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Your aunt's reaction does seem like quite an overreaction, Eva...but it is certainly a scary topic for parents to consider. It's really hard for me to understand how/why teens would kill themselves when they have so many decades ahead of them in which to find out that most problems have a way of solving themselves simply given enough time.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I hope you aren't disappointed in it, Jenclair. The more I think about this one, the more "mixed" my feelings about it become.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I've not read the book but have seen the movie and thought it was really weird. I wouldn't say I didn't like it but I wasn't fond of it. I don't have an interest in reading the book.

    As for not saying the word to not give them ideas, that's ridiculous. Talking about suicide won't make someone want to try it. If they were already thinking about it, talking about it is more likely to stop them from doing it. This is a common misconception.

    ReplyDelete
  8. The book is every bit as weird as what I imagine the movie to have been, Callista. I haven't seen the movie and don't really plan to at this point...sort of like you and the book, I suppose.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I just saw the movie for the first time. It reminded me about myself. But I was 12 when I first tryed to commit suicide. I would like to read the book. :D Its a very good movie. I think this is nice facts to parents about todays teenagers and suicide.

    If my mom had taked my cds away i would run away.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I just finished the book and loved it. To me, searching for the reasons for these or any suicide is a fools errand. Eugenides provides no definitive answer but a book full of clues and possibilities. The book speaks more clearly about our inability as individuals to bridge the gulf separating us from others, even those in our immediate neighborhood crying out for connection.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I haven't finished the book yet, though seen the film. I have to say, due to My own experiences at 13, I can relate to those girls. I'm not getting at anyone, but by writing the book, I believed he raised awareness and a small, but strong insight into what made the girls tick. Please remember that everyone reacts differently to similar situations. I don't want to say what COULD have sparked their intentions off and risk spoiling it for those who haven't read or seen the book. What I will say: Many of us endure our own secret hell that we reveal to no one.. Those that want to end it, tell no one.. A numbness that cant be described when not at that particular moment, comes over us at times too hard to see a way out. Maybe suicide cannot be prevented, but the suicidal are aware they will be accused of selfishness, self-pity, when they actually are not selfish because they BELIEVE everyone will be happy without them.
    Awareness and understanding make a difference or I wouldn't be here today. Trust Me on that.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Elle, thanks so much for your input. Those of us who have not lived through similar circumstances will never understand the situation (or this book, for that matter) nearly as well as those who have. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  13. i have to see the movie and read the book i really want to know what happens!

    ReplyDelete
  14. I live in and go to high school in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, which is where the story is set and inspired from. As a member of this community, it's not so hard to see where the girls emotions would have come from. You have people on food stamps and billionaires, creating a huge divide, in addition to the racial one, for it's hard to find a more racially segregated one. Growing up in Grosse Pointe, I don't find it that far-fetched, I'm guessing 1 out of 3 "grosse pointers" in their teenage years have seriously considered suicide. Even if they were more "normal" these girls would deal with many problems most teens don't growing up in this area.

    ReplyDelete

I trust spammers and their products about as much as I trust those of use car salesmen, faith healers, and politicians. Please understand why I am having to ask for "word verification" even for legitimate comments. I feel your pain.