I read Eugenides’s Middlesex a while ago and was surprised it had won the Pulitzer. Though Eugenides is an excellent writer of sentences, overall that book just didn’t do it for me. The story never came together, the tone never felt right, it felt like a knock-off of Midnight’s Children or Forest Gump, albeit with many clever twists and turns in both the writing an the story. Despite my unsatisfactory experience with Eugenides, I was attracted to The Virgin Suicides. Okay, I admit it: I saw the movie and was intrigued but not satisfied. I hoped to have some questions answered, or at least discussed, in the book.
Now, how to start a fairly positive review of The Virgin Suicides without sounding morbid . . .
Eugenides doesn’t hide what happens here. The title should give it away. If not, the book’s blurb will. And if that doesn’t, the first few pages should be enough. But that the Lisbon girls commit suicide is not the real purpose of this book. Telling the story from the first person plural, a group of middle-aged men who, when adolescents, were neighbors of the Lisbons during the “year of the suicides” have never been able to get over the deaths. In fact, they’ve been obsessed, collecting “exhibits” such as photos, shoes, retainers, anything they can get their hands on. Through the years they’ve interviewed everyone who can give them any details into the girls’ lives, including the poor parents. This book is their reflection, their report.
I do have a major gripe with this book (disclosed below after some spoiler warnings, and, strangely, one that actually made the book even more appealing in the end), but because I don’t want to spoil the book right now I can really only say what I liked — I liked many things about The Virgin Suicides.
For one, Eugenides is an excellent stylist. His sentences weave in and out, he has a great sense of timing, and the atmosphere he creates is appropriately comical, muggy, and haunting. I enjoyed how he could be funny and ominous at the same time while describing this otherwise mundane suburban setting.
The sun was falling in the haze of distant factories, and in the adjoining slums the scatter of glass picked up the raw glow of the smoggy sunset.
Furthermore, the narrators’ reflections are superb and enlightening even when they are puerile, coming from the memories of adolescence. For example, in clever ways Eugenides shows how even our seemingly innocuous, nerdy narrators objectified the Lisbon girls:
Our amazement at being formally invited to a house we had only visited in our bathroom fantasies . . .
. . . five pairs of bronzed baby shoes preserved for all time the unstimulating stage of the Lisbon girls’ infancy.
And what makes this story even more unique is the fact that these very boys are the ones attempting to explain why adolescent girls would commit suicide. All of their attempts to comprehend these girls belie their underlying obsession which is a direct offshoot of the attraction these girls held in life.
No, despite my gripe, I was not disappointed by the book. In some ways it felt like it was relying a bit too much on Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” — first person plural, decaying house, putrid smell, hidden lives, naïve community — to create its motifs, but this is minor because Eugenides really makes it his own.
Now — watch out for spoilers — my major gripe (which my wife helped me turn into something that made the book more interesting). Eugenides alludes to the conclusion that the suicides cannot be explained. All the typical theories — abuse, loneliness, teenage angst, revenge — don’t hold water according to the “we” telling the story, and it definitely felt that Eugenides wanted the reader to feel the same. I wanted to believe it. I wanted to feel like there was more to the suicides. I didn’t come away with that though. I never felt that Eugenides succeeded in presenting any nuances that led me to feel like there was more to the story. It’s not that I wanted an answer — most of the best books don’t have an answer — but I at least wanted some evidence of why there is a question or mystery. Just because Eugenides says there is more to this, and his characters back him up by saying the same thing, did not convince me.
I just never had reason to believe that the totality of the factors leading up to the suicides wasn’t their cause. I don’t think the remaining daughters would have killed themselves but for Cecilia’s suicide and the subsequent grief and lock-down. And even after that, I don’t think they would have committed suicide but for the general objectification by the boys who refused to get to know them and the even harsher lock-down in the steadily decaying house. Adding those factors together I can understand their suicides. They were not individuals. They were even punished as a whole. I’m not sure why — other than because I was told — I’m supposed to think that there was something else, something deeper, something more mysterious, more to the source. As I said earlier, I don’t need the answer to the mystery. I just need the foundation for believing there’s a mystery to begin with.
Then again, this might just be more clever than I first thought. Indeed, this disconnect between what is averred and what is really there — that absence of mystery — might be part of the point. Perhaps the boys’ attempts to find another cause that does not exist is also their attempt to feel less guilty for their fascination with the girls’ deaths and to take away their indirect complicity in the suicides. This is plausible because throughout the book death is another spectacle, another source of intrigue that titillates the boys more than saddens them. That . . . that is brilliant.