Sunday, December 2, 2012
Book Review: The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
The five Lisbon sisters -- Mary, Therese, Bonnie, Lux, and Cecelia -- were a subject of endless fascination for the neighborhood boys. Carefully guarded by their stern, religious mother, they rarely left the house except to attend school. To the boys, they were beautiful and enigmatic, and their home, full of brassieres, tampons, and girls' clothes, was a treasure trove of feminine mysteries. During what came to be known known as The Year of the Suicides, the boys -- who fantasized about the girls and hoped to save them -- bore witness to the disintegration of the Lisbon family and the sisters' tragic deaths.
This is an unusual novel. It's told in third person plural, in the voice of the boys, who are now middle-aged men still trying to unravel the mystery of what happened to the Lisbon girls. It is essentially a book without a protagonist. The men who serve as narrators are on the fringes of the story. And the girls -- upon whom they focus their attention -- never come into clear focus. They're are often seen as an amorphous group, some people had difficulty remembering which sister was which. And the Lisbon girls were only glimpsed in school hallways, through windows, and on their rare appearances in public.
We never hear dialogue or see the girls' thoughts. We view them from a distance; they're shadowy, mysterious characters. Somewhere between them and the dimly glimpsed boys who watch them with such fascination -- in a middle class, 1970s neighborhood populated with dying elm trees -- is the story: filmy reminiscences on collective childhood memories.
It is not really a story in the conventional sense. It is not strongly plot-driven, and the characters are only dimly glimpsed. It is a work of gorgeous lyrical prose, with rich, vivid descriptive detail, almost more a poem than a novel. The vibrant, almost dream-like imagery reminds me a bit of Alice Hoffman's novels. And through this lyrical prose and vivid imagery, Eugenides does an exceptional job of capturing the essence of the story. We get a sense of what the Lisbon household was like. The domineering mother and quiet, scholarly father. The girls, squeezed together in their confined life. Glimpses of their interests, passions, and suppressed longing.
For me, this is a difficult book to review. At times I found myself mesmerized by the gorgeous prose, and at other times I found it difficult to get through. I wanted the story to move forward or dig deeper. I hoped the camera would zoom in more tightly on the characters so we could truly see them.
But in fairness, the novel's style fits the material. In a sense, it's a story about how little we know about the people with whom we grow up and who absorb our attention. It's about how life leaves us with more questions than answers.
It's also a story that's told retrospectively, after twenty years have passed. While novels often feature detailed, linear flashbacks, does memory really work this way? When I look back, I don't see my life, or the lives of people I've known, as well-ordered timelines. I recall a cluster of jumbled memories, images, and emotions, and the people I've known are not always fully drawn in my memory. I certainly don't recall detailed dialogue.
For me, that's what works best about this novel. It portrays memory, more or less, as it really is. It also does a beautiful job of capturing the passion, confusion, and longing of adolescence. This, along with the gorgeous lyrical writing, makes this a unique and memorable novel.
Posted by Anonymous at 10:40 PM
Labels: Dysfunctional Families, Jeffrey Eugenides, Suicide
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I can absolutely understand what you're saying in this review about the difficulties in coming to terms with a book that is so beautifully written but also being a little bit unsatisfactory. I love to dive into books written like this (loved his Middlesex) but also know how you feel about wanting more in terms of development or character. I had no idea this was written from the outside perspective--I just assumed it was narrated by one of the girls.ReplyDelete
I saw this movie years ago when it was in the theaters but don't remember a lot about it. I have the book on my shelf so need to get to it!
I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on this book. :)Delete
I thought Coppola translated the book to screen very well. But I too would have loved a piece of narration by one of the sisters! Their mysterious nature is a great part of the plot, but it's also aggravating having a perpetual wall of silence surrounding them.ReplyDelete
It sounds like you had some of the same mixed feelings I did. I am interested in checking out the film sometime.Delete
To me part of what makes the book is the boys' acknowledgement that they don't know the girls and are only imagining them from afar. I desperately wanted to have access to their perspective, too, but the fact that we're left with that longing makes it a book about imagining other people and longing and misremembering the past.ReplyDelete
When I read this, I didn't get it at all. I really struggled with it. After reading your review, I can see that I didn't come at it from the right perspective. Still not sure I would read it againReplyDelete
I struggled with it a bit too, and I didn't really get perspective on it until I'd finished the book and started writing about it. And I'm certainly not going to say that my interpretation is the "right" one. :-)Delete
I haven't read the book, but my boyfriend and I did watch the movie not too long ago. From what you've said, it seems like the movie brings the girls into focus a little bit better. You see more of their life inside the house, it seems like, which changes things a bit. I'm more curious to read the book now to compare.ReplyDelete
And you've made me more interested in watching the movie to compare. :-)Delete
I thought that this book was good, but it didn't live up to the adoration that a lot of people seem to have for it. There seem to be a lot of people who count this among their favorites, but I honestly preferred The Marriage Plot....ReplyDelete
I didn't fall in love with it either ... but yes, it was good. I need to check out The Marriage Plot now. :-)Delete
This is one of those books that's pretty famous but I haven't managed to read yet. I sort of like the idea of it, but think I might find it frustrating.ReplyDelete
It might be worth reading a few chapters, if you can get it from the library, just to see if this book is for you.Delete
You know I've bought this book couple of months ago but did not finish it. Maybe I should, reading your review. Thanks!ReplyDelete