Chucking her under the chin, he said, "What are you doing here, honey? You're not even old enough to know how bad life gets."
And it was then Cecelia gave orally what was to be her only form of suicide note, and a useless one at that, because she was going to live: "Obviously, Doctor," she said, "you've never been a thirteen-year old girl."
At 13, the youngest Lisbon daughter, Cecelia, slits her wrists in her bathtub one night and is discovered by the son of a town gangster. She lives, however, only to haul herself a month later from her window, this time succeeding in killing herself. The town, Cecelia's parents, and neighbors have no answer as to why Cecelia would commit suicide, and occasionally the remaining girls insist in varying ways that they are not like their crazy sister. Still, over the following year and a half, her remaining four sisters end up following Cecelia's initiative, killing themselves in different ways.
I have owned this book for a while now, but for some reason it was filed in my mind as light fiction, or fluff. Besides, it never really registered in my brain as having been written by Jeffrey Eugenides, an author I have been hoping to read long before now. When I was browsing for a book to read during my SFO trip, I was quite surprised to actually see this book on my shelf.
The first thing that struck me when I started reading The Virgin Suicides is that the story is narrated by a group of faceless boys who are obsessively fascinated by the five Lisbon girls. The narration style is similar to that in The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard. Occasionally, they cannot tell the girls apart, but that didn't matter much - they watched them from their windows and kept hoping that the girls will take more than a little interest in them. The boys occasionally lusted after the girls, especially one of the sisters - Lux Lisbon - and other times, they wanted to fiercefully protect them from the sheer boredom and iron ruling inside their house. I found this interest very unnatural and gnawing on my nerves. I didn't have a problem visualizing a bunch of boys being highly interested in a group of girls. What I did find bothersome was how much grey matter they invested on these girls who mostly kept to themselves. And it was not just the spiked curiosity following one of the sisters committing suicide but rather driven by lust and a desire to be the girls' protector.
The Virgin Suicides started off very engagingly and despite knowing right from the first sentence that all the Lisbon sisters kill themselves ("On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide"), there is an air of mystery and intrigue hovering over the pages. News about one sibling killing himself/herself is not uncommon, but a whole band of five girls was just too unreal. The girls grew up in a very unhealthy atmosphere. Their mother was a very formidable woman who restricted the girls' freedom and movements heavily. They weren't allowed to date, were grounded harshly for small mistakes, were taken out of school a few months after Cecelia's death. The house they lived in was never maintained well after the death, they all ate out of cans, the floors became the ground for trash collection (half-eaten sandwiches strewn about). Against this deteriorating environment, the girls lost weight, didn't get opportunities to socialize, were shuttered within the four walls of their house that was their prison. I started off not being able to accept that the five girls would just kill themselves, but Jeffrey Eugenides paints such a vivid picture of a family gone completely wrong that the girls' depression seemed to overwhelm me.
For a book that is mostly about the girls and the impact their lives and deaths had, Eugenides manages to nicely evoke a very strong sense of atmosphere, in a novel set in the 70s. There are some bathroom racists (people who act proper on the outside, but confess their dislike of other cultures, inside their houses) and a sense that families have established their lives well after several not-so-great phases in history. The story is being narrated by the boys, now adults, some twenty years after the incidents. There are several scenes and objects marked as Exhibits, almost as if a court hearing was in progress. Why exactly the narrators are talking about the deaths twenty years later, is not clear. Were they just reminiscing? Was someone actually on trial? Was anyone ever actually on trial for the girls' deaths? The book isn't clear on these.
The writing is also picturesque and substantial. Eugenides doesn't mince words or cover scenes behind a curtain while narrating the deaths of the girls, their happy and depressing moments, and the lust felt by the boys who coveted the girls. I felt all my senses heightened depending on what the words describing the scene aimed for. Occasionally, however, the prose dragged. There are only so many times you can describe boredom and desire to save someone, without being repetitive. At some point, I could get a sense of something really wrong going to happen, and the slowness of the passages during such times felt inappropriate.
Rather than focus on all the sisters, Eugenides tells the girls' stories through the eyes of the boys, who are aiming their binoculars mostly at Lux Lisbon. While that managed to explain a lot about the girls (Lux's problems became the sisters' problems, Lux's appearance became the sisters appearance too), that didn't really help explain what drove the girls to suicide. Did they really believe that a better life awaited them after death? Did they sit and talk with each other and come to the decision? How do you explain four girls snuffing the lives out of themselves? I didn't feel that I got satisfactory answers to my questions, but I did feel that the author narrated the state of their lives very well.
I bought this book with my hard-earned money.