The Virgin Suicides
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Winner: Aga Khan Prize for Fiction, 1993
Original Publication: 1993
#143 on “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die”
Set in 1970’s Michigan, this story centers around the five teenage daughters of overprotective Catholic parents. The girls are Cecelia, 13; Lux, 14; Bonnie, 15; Mary, 16; and Therese, 17. Their father teaches math at the high school they all attend, and their mother is a fretful housewife. Because the girls are both beautiful and not allowed to interact socially, the neighborhood boys see them all as ethereal, unattainable objects of desire. The novel is narrated in the first person plural as told by the neighborhood boys, who can only offer their impressions of the Lisbon girls as outsiders looking in.
The neighborhood is shocked when 13-year old Cecelia attempts suicide by slicing her wrists. She is rushed to the hospital and saved. Her doctor remarks “Why did you do this? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.” Cecelia deadpans “Obviously, doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year old girl.” In the wake of Cecelia’s suicide attempt, her parents decide that it is perhaps in part their strictness which prompted Cecelia’s despair, and they relax their rules enough to allow the girls to throw a party. The party is hopelessly old-fashioned, and features all of the neighborhood boys in their itchiest finery, astonished to be invited into the Lisbons’ house. The party is going well when Cecelia excuses herself; only to throw herself out of an upstairs window onto a fence, impaling herself and completing her suicide in front of all of the party guests.
After Cecelia’s suicide, the Lisbons close their house up tighter than ever, even pulling the girls out of school. As the boys in the neighborhood see less and less of the family and watch the house fall into gloomy disrepair, the remaining four Lisbon girls are ascribed nearly Goddess status. The boys begin collecting the flotsam and jetsam of the girls’ mysterious existence, going so far as to steal brassieres and other articles for later speculation and fantasy. Lux becomes hyper-sexual, and is seen making love on the roof. The girls begin wasting away and it becomes clear that in their immense grief, no one in the family is bothering to look after them.
Driven mad by curiosity, the boys contact the girls by phone. A kind of strange communication ensues, with each side playing records by way of conveying messages. The girls make it clear that the boys are to come over at their signal the next night, and the boys eagerly await what they believe will be the liberation of the Lisbon daughters at their hands, and envision them all running away together. Lux greets them, and tells the boys that her sisters are still packing, and to wait for them. Lux goes to wait in the car. After much time passes, the boys become restless and go into the house to investigate, where they find Bonnie hanging from a rafter in the basement, Mary with her head in the oven, Therese full of gin and sleeping pills, and Lux dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in the car. (I would have tagged this section as spoilers, but the book is rather clear from the beginning that all five daughters die.)
The literal aftermath of this is less important than the way that the boys are haunted into adulthood by these events – not, as you would imagine, by discovering the bodies of the girls, but by an obsession over what might have been with each one of them. In death, the girls are elevated to heights in their minds that no living woman can achieve.
The novel is beautifully written, if sad, and a very unusual story. The perspective is extremely interesting, and I found myself drawn into the story and as fascinated by the girls as the boys are. I liked the book, and REALLY liked Eugenides’ writing style. I have listed the major plot points here, but synopses dictate, in this case, leaving out a lot of the detail that made the story really haunting and engaging. I was particularly interested that the girls were given such celebrity status amongst their peers. I suspect that this was owed largely to their beauty – it seems to me that five such antisocial and bizarre teenagers would more likely have been branded “losers” by their peers. Indeed, if they had been less attractive, this might have been the case. Such is the visual nature of adolescent boys.
Fun Fact: The novel became a 1999 movie starring Kirsten Dunst as Lux Lisbon, and James Woods and Kathleen Turner as the parents. It is rumored to follow the book fairly closely.
Bother if: You enjoy beautifully crafted tales of the macabre. The imagery and detail is lavish, dark, and compelling.
Don’t bother if: You find gothic motifs, suicide, violence, or sexual details/teen sex off-putting.