The Virgin Suicides
I read The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides last month and it reminded me how highly I had thought of Middlesex some years ago, remaining then was The Virgin Suicides, a novel which has been lurking about my house unread for at least 5 years, and I decided to pick it up and get it done.
I saw the film featuring Kirsten Dunst with music by the band Air around 12 years ago not long after it came out, so had an idea of what to expect.
In The Virgin Suicides, the five Lisbon sisters are infamous among the boys in their town. Ethereal, enigmatic beauties they intrigue, intice and arouse those boys, who are desperate to know them and their lives.
The tale is told by those local boys, now grown up who reflect on that period of time, those girls and what it all meant in such a manner as if they are writing a biography or notes on an exhibition. Photographs are referred to as if they are visible to the reader which they aren't as well as news articles, again not featured and articles of the girls clothing.
The story of the fascination with the Lisbon sisters began before the first suicide attempt with boys daring each other to steal the girls bras and makeup. Their notoriously strict mother has created an intense prison for her daughters since they hit puberty and they are rarely seen alone or out of the house besides at school which only serves to add to their mystique.
When the youngest Cecelia only 13, attempts suicide, fails, but quickly thereafter succeeds, the chain of events that engulfs her sisters is chronicled by the watching neighbourhood boys.
As Mrs Lisbon's decisions to increasingly isolate her daughters begin to make the family implode, this is reflected in the increasing decay on the outside of their property, and a sweltering kind of emotional humidity within reflected in the gathering filth and later lack of food.
Of the girls only Lux and Cecelia come off the page as rounded characters, with Bonnie, Therese and Mary fading into nothing in the background, just 3 other beautiful, damaged girls which is something of a shame. In addition, though Mrs Lisbon is clearly in some way to blame for the unhappiness of her daughters, the reader never finds out why she behaves as she does, because the neighbourhood boys did not have any interest in her. But the Lisbon sisters were a mystery, and to explain away their deaths with cliched references to emotional abuse is something Eugenides seeks to avoid, both I think in order to avoid that sort of happy-clappy psychology speak and to retain that mystery. It's a shame that we never know why Mrs Lisbon destroyed her daughters in such a way or why Mr Lisbon didn't stand up for them but it does not affect either the quality of the writing or its overall enjoyment.
In reference to the chosen mode of narrative, I found it rather unbelievable and excessively morbid that a group of grown men would have clung on to mouldy makeup and rotting rodent bitten candles as keepsakes of a group of dead girls as if they were the relics of saints, but then, I suppose having kept them initially when do you throw them out without throwing away the dead girl with them?
The book is very emotionally moving and I found myself quite physically affected by it too, at moments feeling suddenly cold, or being able to feel the warmth of the summer, or smell the stifling scent of the unclean home. Particularly toward the end the atmosphere and melancholy really impacts the reader, but all along you are as drawn in by the girls as their neighbourhood observers, and in such a way the novel becomes a page turner.
Not a cheery novel by any means, I felt very dispirited by it, but a very well written novel nonetheless 9/10