The five Lisbon sisters are brought up in a strict household, and when the youngest kills herself, the oppression of the remaining sisters intensifies. As Therese, Mary, Bonnie and Lux are pulled deeper into isolation by their domineering mother, a group of neighborhood boys become obsessed with liberating the sisters. But what the boys don't know is, the Lisbon girls are beyond saving.
The girls never really get to speak for themselves. Their parents' conservatism keeps them held within the confinement of a stringent household and away from much of society. The neighborhood boys worship the Lisbon girls as a collective; some of them can't even keep their names straight, just know that to have any one of the girls has to be wonderful. The Lisbon girls are held up as an example of tragic teen suicide, or the cause of the demise of the neighborhood, but never just girls.
Jeffrey Eugenides writes a compelling story brimming with the awkwardness and uncertainty of adolescence that rings very true. At times, therefore, this can be a challenging book, but it's a good one
Let me first say that despite the disturbing subject matter, I found The Virgin Suicides to be well-written and tragically beautiful. Jeffrey Eugenides' writing gives this obviously dark story the gentle and enchanting feel of a fairy tale. The Virgin Suicides is simply haunting, perhaps due to the obsessive point of view and speculations of the neighborhood boys.
Jeffrey Eugenides is a superb example of everything a writer should be - brilliant with his prose, compelling with his setting, and engaged in his plot. The finished product is a remarkably readable, atmospheric tale, bending at times towards the Gothic. A touching and realistic story, artistically written, The Virgin Suicides is an interesting and unsettling story that should not be missed.
This is the talent of Eugenides. We're given the story, not from inside the Lisbon house, but from outside. And from this need to understand outside, we're given a view that's very compelling. We find girls catapulted into mythological creatures from this perspective; we find a home transformed into a full character from this perspective. Even more importantly, this perspective allows a look into an incomprehensible tragedy with a permissible distance. Any closer and we would have been overwhelmed by what the Lisbon girls had experienced; any further and we would have been the news media reading cold statistics on teen suicide over videotaped footage of the Lisbon house for color.
This novel is one of my sister’s favorites so I needed to check it out. While it isn’t one of mine, it isn’t bad. It was a pretty quick read, and definitely held my interest. I just had some issues with it.
The title tells you what’s going to happen in the book. There’s no surprise, really, except in how the five sisters will all take their lives by the end of the book, but the first couple of pages make it clear that they do. As a plot device, that works in this instance.
The first issue is the narrative structure – the book is told from a collective first person. The guys in town who attended school with the sisters provide all of the detail. The guys have names (well, some of them do), but the perspective is of them as a group. It’s an okay idea, but it definitely prevents anyone from taking personal responsibility for their perspective. They appear to be discussing the events years and years after they occurred, trying to figure it all out in their minds by piecing together evidence and interviews, but it’s sort of awkward.
The second issue stems from the first, and that is that because the narrative comes from a group of men, all we learn about these women is how guys see them. How they may be idealized, or put on a pedestal, or judged by their male peers seems especially cruel given the subject matter. These women are apparently only coming alive to the reader because of how some men noticed them. That’s sad to me.
Because of the above two issues I almost feel like I’m missing something. I’d love to talk about this book in a literature class to see if maybe the devices that bothered me just completely went over my head. But the further I get from the book the less I like it.
You could also argue that "The Virgin Suicides" is an indictment of spiritually stultifying suburban life: the book suggests that the Lisbon sisters might have been driven to their deaths by sheer boredom. Because both the Lisbon sisters and the boys who reminisce about them seem excruciatingly aware of the strict confines of their white, wealthy, culturally conservative neighborhood, you could argue that it's a case study in the way that class and race limit and impoverish experience. You could argue that it's a demonstration of how the idealization of young women essentially silences them; the narrators were fascinated with these five girls, but also admit that they didn't really know them. "The Virgin Suicides" is one of those complex, well-constructed books that easily lend themselves to multiple interpretations. Honestly, if this one has a flaw, it's that the author spells all of this out a bit too clearly in the books final pages, when a number of his characters speculate openly about why the Lisbon sisters might have killed themselves. While other reviewers might dispute this, I'd argue that the collective narrator of "The Virgin Suicides" is unusually reflective and quite aware that the narrative they constructed around the Lisbon sisters might have contributed to their problems. Most books as unashamedly lyrical and finely wrought as "The Virgin Suicides" don't usually exhibit that level reflexivity. This is one skillfully constructed novel.
In the end, I suspect that whether you'll like this book will depend on how much attention you think a story like this deserves. Readers with an allergy to nostalgia or sentimentality may feel that Eugenides is simply investing too much in material that doesn't really stand up to this sort of scrutiny. This is, after all, a novel whose most poignant scene involves teenagers playing soft-rock ballads to each other over the phone. It seems inevitable that some people will take "The Virgin Suicides" as a pretty but insubstantial exercise in sugary bathos. And they might not be wrong: America's absolutely obsessed with pretty dead teenagers these days, after all, and maybe it always was. But alongside this somewhat familiar story, we also get glimpses of the problems and the loneliness that our narrators encountered after they grew out of their neighborhood and tried to make their lives in an America that changed radically -- and perhaps not for the better -- after the Lisbon girls took their leave of them in the mid-seventies. "The Virgin Suicides" isn't just a novel about the Lisbon sisters; it's also a novel about what happens to you after a near-idyllic adolescence leaves you unprepared for what might come next. This is something that both the Lisbon sisters and the narrators have in common, and Eugenides seems to be suggesting that the young women at the center of this book just saw it first. Recommended.
I can't say I was satisfied by this--the novel is narrated by people who have no conclusive insights into the motives/inner lives of the titular "virgins," so the story is very open-ended and speculative--but I did enjoy reading it. Sections are very moving, and I found myself relating to the characters beyond the morbid curiosity that I'd begun reading with. I'd recommend it, as long as you're not looking for a cheerful, holiday-appropriate read.
On a slightly different note, though, the aspect of the book that did interest me was the treatment of gender (really shouldn't be a surprise from the author of Middlesex, I suppose). The girls being constantly referred to homogeneously as "the Lisbon girls" and the way the local boys (i.e. the narrator) sometimes got them confused and regarded them as a unit grated on me. As, I think, it was intended to. I think the end of the book strongly suggests that this attitude is actually a big part of the real answer to the mystery, which the narrator continues to fail to grasp. "The Lisbon girls" say more about the narrating childhood culture than about the girls themselves, I think.
So, the book was interesting enough that I finished it, and it kept me thinking about certain aspects of it for a while afterward, but I still didn't really like it. There were aspects that were very good, and a lot that it didn't really earn, to my mind. Or maybe I just missed the point by wanting a bit more narrative interest. If anything I've said sounded interesting to you then give it a try; plenty of people think the book is literary genius so it's worth the attempt, but know what to expect.
At times the story dragged, but the wording was beautiful, and the story in itself is haunting. It doesn't ultimately solve the mystery of why they killed themselves, but does a good job of explaining in detail all the factors which led up to their deaths. After reading (and absolutely loving) Middlesex, I was excited to read this. Eugenides is an extremely talented writer in that he makes the details more interesting than they really are. The tone of the book is pretty dark, which is interesting for a story about youth, but ultimately I guess it's because it's more about the passing of youth and everything that's lost.
Detroit suburb becomes claustrophobic as they slowly retreat within themselves.
We watch their story unfold from the outside view of the neighborhood boys and because of this we never truly understand all that the girls go through. The reader is left wanting more; more information, more interaction with the Lisbons, just more. I think that Eugenides intended this, because he wrote the book from the point-of-view of outsiders who were themselves, left wanting more. That is a double-edged sword though, because while the novel is strangely fascinating, it also keeps the reader at a distance. We hear about events that have already happened and we receive little explanation for them. It’s hard to become too involved, but it’s also a tribute to Eugenide’s skill as a writer that he can give the reader so little and yet hold their attention.
It’s a beautifully written debut novel and I’m glad I read it, though I might have held him to a higher standard with this novel, because I knew what he was capable of. In the writing I recognize the style that I loved so well in his second book, Middlesex. This book’s somber tone failed to capture my love in the same way his later novel did.
Rewind the tape, and we are now taken back to when the first suicide happened. Cecilia, the youngest daughter, tries to kill herself by slitting both her wrists while in the bathtub. Her attempt is unsuccessful, and she is brought to the hospital where she is promptly brought back to life.
Why did she commit suicide? And why, even after being saved and brought for counselling, did she try again? (She succeeded this time.)
But the core of the story revolves around the lives of the remaining sisters and their parents. In a family so strict and bound by unbending rules set by their mother, how did the girls survive this family tragedy, their loss of their youngest sister?
The whole story is told in such a way that when I was reading it, I felt like I was watching a dramatic documentary. The narrators are themselves boys who witnessed this tragedy unfold, and were then obsessed about the remaining Lisbon girls. Now, when they are older and probably middle-aged, and after having 'researched' bits and pieces of the suicides, they tell us the story.
I found this novel to be a very interesting read. Wonderful descriptions and, as I would expect from Eugenides, excellently written in a simple and poweful style.
I don't know this seems harsh but at the same time I did like it in ways and it's just really a hard one. I'm not sure how exactly I feel.
October Sixth, 2013
The Virgin Suicides is a story unlike any other. Eugenides’ tale exposes love, lust, and death through the honest and raw voice of the neighborhood’s adolescent boys who obsessively watch the Lisbon sisters. Beautiful, mysterious, and completely unobtainable to the boys. With an iron grip, Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon parent the girls under a strict Catholic household. Cecilia, quiescent, introverted, and shy is the first to commit. Out of the window onto a sharp fence. Thus, launches a chaotic spiral into an inevitable demise of a once happy family. Throughout the story, you delve into the sisters most personal moments, thoughts, and encounters, including their final moments on Earth.
Initially, the outcome you expect from a tale such as this includes the words: somber, depressing, bleak, hopeless to name a few. But read on, these presumptions fly out the window along with little Cecilia. Instead you will find yourself transfixed, captivated, and infatuated. Eugenides gives the reader vivid pictures of passion, despair, and death.
Eugenides keeps the story from being too dark with witty, clever humor. Using sparse dialogue forces Eugenides makes each sentence count. This stunning novel will stay with you in a powerful way.
If you aren't familiar with the story... In a (Michigan?) suburban town, several boys -- in particular the unnamed narrator -- watch with interest and obsession, the lives and deaths of the five Lisbon sisters, across the street. Ranging in age from 13 to 17, and appearing nearly identical to the observer, the blonde sisters seem to have an otherwordly, secret mystery about them, which is only further enhanced when the youngest sister finally succeeds - on her second try - to kill herself. The family turns inward, cutting the girls off from society, making them like captured princesses in a slowly deteriorating suburban castle. The observing boys - never quite old enough or cool enough to feel the girls had any interest in them - watch, take notes, gather evidence, and wait for the time when they hope they might recue them from their doomed fate.
A modern day allegoriser, Eugenides specializes in the dark reality that lurks behind "normal" American middle class society.
The haunting quality of the story isn't the suicides of the Lisbon girls, but the voyeurism of the group of boys and families around them whose narratives make up the book.
After reading Eugenides' "Middlesex" I couldn't wait to read "Suicides," and lucky for me, a friend had a copy! While I didn't like this as much as his other novel, I did enjoy it. I liked the way the Lisbon's story was revealed- through a name-less narrator who stalked the girls. ...I know I normally have a more in-depth review, but the nature of this book just doesn't really lead me to one. I did like it, and if you're in a mood for a sad, but good, story then you should pick this one up!
FAVORITE QUOTE: What my 'yia yia' could never understand about America was why everyone pretended to be happy all the time.