Before the acclaim of Middlesex and My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, Jeffrey Eugenides published his debut novel, The Virgin Suicides (1993). An homage to the five Lisbon girls from the boys of the neighborhood (the ubiquitous “we”), the Virgin Suicides is a voyeuristic shrine to unfulfilled love and the decay of young life.
As opposed to Middlesex, where words were spawned as often as generations, Eugenides conserves his words to create a sculpted landscape of images. His careful choice of syntax creates a hazy atmosphere in which the hot days of summer seem to linger, and the amber glow of the seventies has not yet dimmed.
The adoration of the Lisbon daughters begins by a conceptualization of all five girls – Therese, Bonnie, Mary, Lux and Cecilia – as a “mythical creature with ten legs and five heads,” which only later develops into five characters. The neighborhood boys, not allowed to step into the Lisbon household, have to rely on imagination, surveillance, and the words of those lucky enough to find a way into the house to conceptualize “the effluvia of so many young girls becoming women together in the same cramped space.” Sightings of crucifixes draped with bras, and the moist smell of young women pervade: Eugenides convinces the reader that we too are seeing and smelling and hearing the sounds of the Lisbon girls.
The family consists of Mrs. Lisbon (iron-fisted, Catholic); Mr. Lisbon (passive; high-voiced); Therese and Mary, “tight-lipped, tight-assed”; Bonnie, who is religious and wears a hair-shirt; Lux, the promiscuous “carnal angel”, the pinnacle of the Lisbon sisters who makes love to strangers on the roof at night; and Cecilia, who is characterized by her strangeness, her placid eyes, and the faded vintage wedding dress she always wears. Cecilia, thirteen, has not much time to develop. She attempts suicide on the first page and fails, only to succeed later by jumping out of the window and impaling herself on the fence.
Cecilia’s death is compared by the neighborhood boys to a contagious flu. The remaining girls waste away, locked inside their coffin-like house. All love and attention seems to vanish; the house disintegrates; everything is inflected by a sense of ennui and rot. The community is almost waiting for the other Lisbon girls to join their sister in death. They are not disappointed: the reader is informed from the first sentence that all five girls are to go.
It is a story pieced together from obsessive memories, gossip, by interviews assumedly conducted long after the Lisbon girls are dead, pieces of stolen mail, glimpses of diaries, long-term espionage, and a sort of teenage telepathy.
Haunting and poignant, the Virgin Suicides present a stack of fading pictures that pay tribute to the mysterious deaths of five girls locked away from sunshine, health and true affection. But more so, it is about the boys who loved them, the boys who watched them, and who now, middle-aged and pot-bellied, remember them to save them.