Monday, May 16, 2011

Review: The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides

Reviewed by Christina

Published: 1993

It's about: Set in the 1970's in suburban Detroit, The Virgin Suicides is the story of the Lisbon family's disintegration. It all begins with Cecilia, the youngest of the five daughters, who is only thirteen when she kills herself. Throughout the next year, as the family tries and fails to deal with Cecilia's death, the other four daughters grow more and more desperate.

The tale is told from the point of view of a group of men, now in middle age, who grew up in the Lisbons' neighborhood and have gathered their collective reminiscences in an attempt to explain that fateful year.

I thought: Boy, I loved this book, but it's not exactly a charmer from the get-go. I had to get used to the eerie first-person plural p.o.v., and the story is overwhelmingly and pervasively macabre. Plus, I'm not gonna lie, I was kinda embarrassed by the boobs on the cover. (Yes, they are there. Zoom in on that photo if you don't believe me.)

The unique thing about this book is the way the story is told. The narrators refer to people and places without much explanation, as if the reader is a resident of the neighborhood who should already be familiar with them. And they refer to "exhibits" (photos, artifacts) as if the reader is standing by, viewing a collection of items that relate to the Lisbon girls' life. They present multiple townspeoples' perspectives and opinions about how and why everything happened the way it did. After a while I got the strange sense that the town itself was narrating this book. I don't think I've ever experienced that before in a novel. It was subtle. I liked it.

And, more generally, I just can't get enough of Jeffrey Eugenides' writing! He describes the setting and period perfectly, but without wordiness or excessive detail. He writes tragedy with sympathy and not sentimentality. He has a sense of humor and perfect timing. Themes (in this case decay, contagion) spring up out of the text and drop into your lap, but they don't get all up in your grill. Some of my favorite parts were his clever physical descriptions of the characters. Example: "Because we had known him as a pudgy boy whose teeth slanted out of his open, trolling mouth like those of a deep-sea fish, we had been slow to recognize his transformation." Ha! Yes.

In conclusion, I can't wait for Mr. Eugenides' next book, due out in October. He rocks my world.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf!

Reading Recommendations: This book is really, really dark. Hopefully you were able to glean that from the title and plot synopsis. Don't read it unless you know you can deal with lots of death.

I'd definitely recommend watching Sofia Coppola's beautiful and faithful adaptation. (Also very, very dark, to the point of being fairly disturbing. Don't say I didn't warn you.)

And I know I've said this before, but I'm just going to go ahead and say it again: Read Middlesex. It's one of my favorite books. It has everything I liked about The Virgin Suicides and so much more. (BUT I know not everyone loves it as much as I do. So if you've already read it and you didn't go gaga over it the way I did, that's okay too.)

Warnings: teen drug use and sexy stuff, a bit of language, morbidity throughout.

Favorite excerpts:
"Dr. Armonson stitched up her wrist wounds. Within five minutes of the transfusion he declared her out of danger. 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.'"

"In the end, it wasn't death that surprised her but the stubbornness of life. She couldn't understand how the Lisbons kept so quiet, why they didn't wail to heaven or go mad. Seeing Mr. Lisbon stringing Christmas lights, she shook her head and muttered. ... Demo explained it to us like this: 'We Greeks are a moody people. Suicide makes sense to us. Putting up Christmas lights after your own daughter does it- that makes no sense. What my yia yia could never understand about America was why everyone pretended to be happy all the time.'"

What I'm reading next: God Dies by the Nile, by Nawal El Saadawi (for A Year of Feminist Classics)