FTC Disclosure: Book provided by the publisher for participating in book club discussion
I have an extra copy due to a shipping mix-up.
Details on how to win this are given at the end of this post.
The Virgin Suicides is Jeffrey Eugenides first novel, which seems apparent at first. However as the story progresses, so does the author’s skill with following through on a premise he lays out for the readers in the first sentence:
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.
How do you write an entire book after telling the reader the plot from the very beginning? Well, if the suicides were simply all that this book was about, it would be pretty damn difficult. Do not simply judge it by the title, or that first sentence. This book is much, much more.
The story is told from the point of view of a group of men who feel compelled to understand the tragedy that befell the Lisbon family over a course of thirteen months when they were adolescents. To borrow from Winston Churchill, the sisters are “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” To the boys in the neighborhood, they were an alluring challenge that each wanted to overcome and comprehend:
…the five glittering daughters in their homemade dresses, all lace and ruffle, bursting with their fructifying flesh.
We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy…
The voice, or should I say voices, in this book work. And after reading what Eugenides had to say about why he did it this way, it makes perfect sense and adds to the perception of witnessing an event from a distance and all the complications which come from this:
When I wrote The Virgin Suicides, I gave myself very strict rules about the narrative voice: the boys would only be able to report what they had seen or found or what had been told to them. I think because it was my first book that helped to limit the possibilities of what I could use. It really constrained the point-of-view. Since the book was about obsession and voyeurism, and also about the things that linger in your mind from adolescence, it seemed an appropriate point-of-view
— (Excerpted from a Powells.com interview conducted by Dave Weich)
This book will not leave you with answers. No matter how much information is revealed, it isn’t enough to lead the reader, or the men, to any tangible conclusions. And this is just as it should be. Even though a work of fiction, this is how it is in real life. Suicide is no answer and has no answers; just suppositions and conjecture.
It’s very difficult to know what was in those girls’ hearts. What they were really trying to do.
In the end, the tortures testing the Lisbon girls pointed to a simple reasoned refusal to accept the world as it was handed down to them, so full of flaws.
This book left me frustrated and angry. Not at the acts of the sisters, but of their parents and the community. How they reacted and failed not only the family, but themselves. No one touched by the tragedy was left the same. I felt I was reading a proverbial train wreck, knowing what was about to happen, the devastation that would follow, and powerless to do anything about it. I wanted to reach into the pages and shake sense into those who could have made a difference. It was then I realized that the author had drawn me in and touched me deeply. I also noticed the subtle change of voice and tone that indicated this was a writer to watch. This is borne out by his next novel, Middlesex receiving the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2002.
I am giving this book 4 stars out of 5. It’s good, but not a page turner and one that keeps you up all night reading. I must say, as a book club pick, this is a perfect choice as there are many aspects of the story and the characters that will provide ample material for a lively discussion.
Jeffrey Eugenides has written two novels and numerous short stories. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Yale Review, Best American Short Stories, The Gettysburg Review and Granta’s ‘Best of Young American Novelists’.