Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides

When DVDs first came out, I was at the age when I was working part-time and still living at home, so I had disposable income kicking around (god, those were the good ol’ days….).  With some of that extra scratch, one of the first DVDs I bought myself was Sophia Coppola’s flick, The Virgin Suicides.  It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I heard about the book that it was based on, and read it thanks to a friend’s recommendation.  After reading Middlesex, I was on a quest to read more of Jeffrey Eugenides’ works, so it seemed like a good time to re-read The Virgin Suicides.  Now, it had been a few years since I had seen the movie or read the book, so it was almost like coming to the story fresh.

The plot is a hauntingly chilly look at suburbia during the rise of the American middle-class in the 1970s.  Narrated to the reader by one of the local neighborhood boys, The Virgin Suicides tells the story of the Lisbon girls; five sisters, ranging in age from 13-18.  The boys narrating the story describe their obsession with the beautiful and mysterious Lisbon girls as a long-term fixation, but it develops into an inquest for the truth when the youngest girl, Cecilia commits suicide.  What follows is the boys’ observations on how Mrs. Lisbon cracked down, how Mr. Lisbon fought for sanity in an uncomfortable home-situation, and how the entire family fell apart.

The thing about this book is that I think it could be read a half-dozen different ways by a half-dozen different people.  When I first read it, I was the same general age as the Lisbon girls were; to me, it came across as frightening in its possibilities.  In the re-reading of it, a decade later, I remember back to that era in my life, and wonder how I came out of it (relatively) unscathed.  I’ve never suffered from a serious depression, nor had repressive parents, so now, with the distance of time and the clearing of angsty-hormones from my system, I find I can’t relate as I once did, but I can still empathize.

And that’s the trick behind Eugenides’ writing.  He’s writing, in essence, about young women in the first blush of life, and he’s painted them as realistic, believable and sympathetic characters.  You might not agree with everything that Lux does, or understand Cecilia’s motivations, or can forgive Mary, but each of the girls feels like a real person, who has quirks and flaws that makes them human.  

In terms of writing style, I’m surprised this book isn’t assigned to high school English classes.  It’s rife for analysis on what the girls’ particular choice in song is, or what the planets in Mr. Lisbon’s classroom could symbolize, or the role of the family oak tree in the girls’ understanding of selves.  I don’t think the topic material is beyond the grasp of high school kids, and it can’t be any more psychologically damaging than reading a story about a couple of thirteen year-olds falling so desperately in love they kill themselves (I mean, come on, WHY is that play taught to kids?!), so I think it would be a good one to appear on the syllabi of young people; it might cast light on some sticky situations that high school kids are dealing with.

For all that, I find the ending to this book to be difficult to assimilate.  As the title implies, there are some deaths; maybe because I’ve never been ‘there’ mentally, I find myself to be a casual observer to the slow decline of the Lisbon family.  I can’t understand why the girls do what they do, I can’t agree with it (because I know it always gets better once you’re out of high school), and so I find myself passively accepting the plot structure Eugenides uses.  This is a little odd given how engaging the characters are; usually I’m so emotionally invested in good characters that it kills me if they die, but not in this case.

So, final verdict?  Read this book.  Eugenides knocks it out the park with this one, and the movie is a stunningly beautiful homage to a well-writing piece of literature.  If The Virgin Suicides teaches the reader anything (and all good literature should impart some sort of lesson), it’s that beauty can be found in even the most dismal of situations, and Eugenides’ plot and writing style reflect that moral.

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