Friday, May 15, 2009

47. The Virgin Suicides – Jeffrey Eugenides

History: Published in 1993.
Plot: The Lisbons are a Catholic family living in Grosse Pointe, Michigan in the 1970s. The father, Ronald, is a teacher at the local high school and the mother is a homemaker. The family has five daughters: 13-year-old Cecilia, 14-year-old Lux, 15-year-old Bonnie, 16-year-old Mary, and 17-year-old Therese.
Their lives change dramatically within one summer when Cecilia, a stoic and astute girl described as an "outsider", attempts suicide by cutting her wrists. A few weeks later, the girls throw a chaperoned party at which Cecilia jumps from their second story window and succeeds in ending her life, by being impaled by a fence post.
The cause of Cecilia's suicide and its after effects on the family are popular subjects of neighborhood gossip. The mystique of the Lisbon girls also increases for the neighborhood boys, the narrators of the novel.
Lux begins a romance with local heartthrob Trip Fontaine. Trip negotiates with the overprotective Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon to take Lux to a homecoming dance, on the condition that he finds dates for the other three girls. Lux then misses her curfew - consequently, the Lisbons become recluses. Mrs. Lisbon pulls all the girls out of school, believing that it would help the girls recover. Mr. Lisbon officially takes a leave of absence. Their house falls into a deeper state of disrepair and none of them leave the house. A strange smell coming from the house permeates the neighborhood. From a safe distance, all the people in the neighborhood watch the Lisbons' lives deteriorate, but no one can summon up the courage to intervene.
During this time, the Lisbons become increasingly fascinating to the neighborhood in general and the narrator boys in particular. The boys call the Lisbon girls and communicate by playing records over the telephone for the girls.
Finally, the girls send a message to the boys to come to the house. Shortly after the boys arrive, three of the sisters kill themselves, Bonnie hangs herself, Therese overdoses on sleeping pills, Lux dies of carbon monoxide poisoning. Mary attempts suicide from putting her head in the oven, but fails. Mary later suceeds by taking sleeping pills. Newspaper writer Linda Perl notes that that mass suicide comes a year after Cecilia's first attempt. After the suicide "free-for-all," Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon leave the neighborhood. The house is sold to a young couple from the Boston area and most of the Lisbons' personal effects are either thrown out or sold in a garage sale. The narrators scavenge through the trash to collect much of the "evidence" they mention.
Review: The novel is atypical in that it was written in first person plural from the perspective of an anonymous group of teenage boys who became infatuated with the girls, a style mirroring a Greek chorus. The narrator(s) rely on relics and interviews gathered in the two decades after the suicide to construct the tale. The novel is rich in descriptive detail, using observations about the state of the Lisbon house and the contents of the girls’ rooms to advance the plot. The effect is that the reader glimpses the novel’s main characters as if he or she were one of the neighborhood onlookers. It remains unclear whom the narrative chorus is addressing. Though it sometimes seems as though the mourners have collected all their memorabilia and conducted their interviews for some official purpose, this is never made clear. In their attempt to understand who the Lisbon girls were and why they committed suicide, they never find a truly satisfying answer. But the entire novel, meanwhile paints a poignantly sharp and critical portrait of the suburban American life experienced by the baby boom generation.
Opening Line: “On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese – the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.”
Closing Line: “It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only htat we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.”
Quotes: “We realised that the version of the world they had rendered for us was not the world they really believed in, and that for all their caretaking and bitching about crabgrass, they didn't give a damn about lawns.”
Rating: good

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