A teenage girl’s adolescent years are when she first learns how disappointing the world can be. The hope and wonder that comes with childhood begins to fade as she discovers the findings set before her.
“The Virgin Suicides” by Jeffrey Eugenides tells the story of a quiet suburban Detroit neighborhood in the 1970s that was struck by an unimaginable tragedy. The focus is on the Lisbon family, which consists of five sisters – Lux, Cecilia, Therese, Mary and Bonnie, their strict mother and abstract father. In a matter of 13 months, all five sisters commit suicide.
Based on the premise, you might think Eugenides is delving into the minds of these women to tell their stories, but instead he takes his own approach. This story is told from the perspective of the young neighbor boys who watch the girls at school, in church and from all over the street. At this point, they are all middle-aged adults with wives and children and they are reflecting on their account of what happened.
Let me start by saying that I have never felt so frustrated, confused and tired while reading a book. Still, by the time I finished, this book changed the way I appreciate written works. I still find it resonates with me more than anything I’ve ever read. He was so crazy and intelligent that I couldn’t help but think about him every day.
The cramming of grand vocabulary alone made me want to throw the book across the room a few times. The narration was tiring. I rolled my eyes when a small mention of a person or event turned into tangents that took over most of the episode without relevance to the story. On top of that, the author chose to include random, borderline racist comments that completely offended me. Halfway through the book, my interest was completely gone, but a random glance back to the first chapter changed my view of what this book was about.
This story was about teenage boys almost as much as it was about teenage girls. The random tangents focused on even the most random details, the disjointed and disjointed way of discussing the girls and pretty much everything that upset me about this book was supposed to make me feel that way. The boys had no real concern or compassion for the girls. They saw them as the epitome of ideal beauty. They were even disappointed when he took them to the school dance because they finally talked to every girl for the first time, and it disrupted their fantasies. They complained about how ordinary the women were up close and alone.
Their parents also saw them as wrong. Their father did not know how to interact with the girls and saw them as strangers. Their mother was controlling and tyrannical with strict restrictions on television, time after school, clothes and almost anything that could give the girls the slightest feeling of happiness and freedom. Any slight pushback from the girls was met with unreasonable punishment, including pulling the five girls out of the school after Lux came back from the dance late.
In every aspect of Lisbon women’s lives, they are seen as something to be controlled or admired, yet ignored. This is what makes this book a meditative masterpiece. Eugenides captured each set of characters perfectly. The girls want the space to be their own and at least learn who they are in the first place. The boys are immature and self serving. They see the girls as perfect and see themselves as “nice boys” that the girls should love, but they never made an effort to interact with them. Even in adulthood, they claim to be them and are still in love with them. Their parents support the idea that physical presence, teaching obedience and providing basic human needs is as far as their parent should go. Anyone can pick up this book and find that they have played the role of at least one of these characters, even if it is a hard pill to swallow. It conveys incredible complexities at the heart of ordinary life.