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

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