I loved it but I don’t think I could read it again anytime soon. It was an emotional rollercoaster to relieve my adolescent years in deteriorating suburbia. I would still highly recommend, it’s so good.
Written from the perspective of men who had known the Lisbon girls when they were teenagers, it is their attempt to come to terms and understand the suicides of the five Lisbon girls, Cecilia, Lux, Bonnie, Mary, and Therese. It’s written like an interview with the reader, with occasional leaning on the fourth wall when the ‘author’ shows exhibits of the girls’ properties such as their diary or photographs and requests that you “please don’t touch”. The conflicting evidences given by the people who knew the Lisbon girls only serve to enhance the morbidity and mystery of the whole affair.
This quote sets the entire pacing, structure, and tone of the novel:
Dr. Armonson stitched up her wrist wounds. Within five minutes of the transfusion he declared her out of danger. Chucking her under her 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 Cecilia 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.”
But I think to summarise this novel as another ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ with angry teenage girls demeans the whole plot and I don’t think that was what Jeffrey Eugenides intended for the readers to take from it anyway. Nor does it help to state that the second element to this is the crushing atmosphere of the suburban American middle-class. It has to be read to appreciate the nostalgia, the despair, the eccentricity, and the black humour of it all.
The men jump back and forth between reflecting what they actually felt during the year of the Lisbons suicides coupled with their own experiences of adulthood, nevertheless, the pacing is done better than ‘Middlesex’ because at no point does it feel long or overly detailed (but overall I do prefer ‘Middlesex’ to ‘The Virgin Suicides’ simply due to topic choice).
This novel tries to make multiple attempts to explain the actions of the Lisbon girls, but it’s deliberately left hauntingly vague:
A Walt Disney special was on, and the Lisbons watched it with the acceptance of a family accustomed to bland entertainment, laughing together at the same lame stunts, sitting up during the rigged climaxes. Trip Fontaine didn’t see any signs of twistedness in the girls, but later he did say, “You would have killed yourself just to have something to do.”
I think it’s done so anyone can relate to their experience. If we later found out that Mrs. Lisbon was part of a cult or that Mr. Lisbon abuses them at night, it wouldn’t have the same meaning because readers would think ‘well of course they killed themselves, there’s your answer!’ which defeats the whole purpose.
There’s also a bit of ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ theme running throughout, but not because the author romanticises the Lisbon girls, but I think as a side effect from the men struggling to understand who they were, which again ties in with Eugenides leaving a lot of things up for interpretation.
This is so, unbelievably good, and so uniquely written despite the emotional drain, I don’t know if anyone else can write about five teenage girls killing themselves without sensationalising or cheapening it.
On another note:
I’ve also never read such an articulate paragraph on the adolescent girl experience as described by the men who got a hold of Cecilia’s diary:
We knew what it felt like to see a boy with his shirt off, and why it made Lux write the name Kevin in purple Magic Marker all over her three-ring binder and even on her bras and panties, and we understood her rage coming home one day to find that Mrs. Lisbon had soaked her things in Clorox, bleaching all the “Kevins” out. We knew the pain of winter wind rushing up your skirt, and the ache of keeping your knees together in class, and how drab and infuriating it was to jump rope while the boys played baseball. We could never understand why the girls cared so much about being mature, or why they felt compelled to compliment each other, but sometimes, after one of us had read a long portion of the diary out loud, we had to fight back the urge to hug one another or to tell each other how pretty we were. We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colours went together. We knew that the girls were our twins, that we all existed in space like animals without identical skins, and that they knew everything about us though we couldn’t fathom them at all. We knew, finally, that the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love and even death, and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them.
It was case of ‘someone put it into words!’