Skip to main content

"The Virgin Suicides" by Jeffrey Eugenides

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Private Life of the Diary

I’ve kept a diary since I was twelve. While I composed nearly illegible autobiographical scratchings in my first years of primary school at my teachers’ request, it wasn’t until I was on the brink of becoming a teenager that I felt I needed a more permanent arrangement. I suspect it had to do with reading The Diary of Anne Frank. My diary’s function has changed over the years – it once had a name (having discovered that Zoe was the Greek word for life, I thought my choice extremely clever), and I used to like my diaries in a variety of shapes and sizes, spangled with glitter, ruled with wide lines, shackled with locks and keys. For at least eight years my diary was the space in which to vent my feelings, and offered some form of therapeutic comfort. This meant it was largely about boys and is, as a result, very tedious to reread. But while the function of my journal has changed, each volume has been a solution to the manic desire to scribble. As I discovered reading Anne Frank, each e…

The Short Story Season I

The New Yorker Fiction podcast, which I’ve now gobbled up in its entirety, has recently been a lifeline while I’ve been travelling from house to house, city to city. It’s been responsible for kick-starting my renewed interest in the short story – more to come – and for introducing me to writers I’ve long known by name but never read: like Elizabeth Taylor.

Paul Theroux read Taylor’s ‘The Letter Writers’ this past January for the podcast and the story remains one of her best, alongside (and forgive the list) stories such as ‘Taking Mother Out’, ‘Swan-Moving’, ‘A Sad Garden’, ‘The Ambush’, ‘The True Primitive’, ‘The Little Girl’, ‘Hare Park’, ‘The Prerogative of Love’, and ‘The Thames Spread Out’. Travelling with the hefty paperback on planes, trains, and automobiles, I feel I’ve dragged round my little plot of England to keep me company.

(A quick note on editions: an NYRB edition of her stories has just been published but it is a selection, rather than Virago’s Complete Stories. Forgo t…

Blast-beruffled plumes

I’ve returned to Minnesota to find it transformed into a Brueghel painting.



Our hunters are gone north or even south, wherever there are more deer. This has been a bad year for deer, threatened by the cold of last year’s polar vortex and the high population of coyotes, which now carry a bounty on their heads.

So, while it’s still autumn in England (I’ve been assured), winter has come. The nights are long, the wreaths are out. I’ve been reading restlessly – Robert Walser and GB Shaw. But some nights, Thomas Hardy feels just right for November melancholia. Here’s ‘A Darkling Thrush’:

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
Th…