on 5 April 2006
I wanted to love this book. I wanted to fall head over heels in love with it. I thought I would aswell. Books about teenagers are my thing, books about suburbia are my thing, books about suicide are my thing. This should have been my thing, but it wasn't.
This is the story about the Lisbon girls, five sisters who all killed themselves, told by the neighbourhood boys who were, and still are, infatuated with them. It is written beautifully and from the opening few pages I thought this was going to be the perfect book but I soon became disappointed.
For me there was no plot, it was just an account of people's responses to the suicides. I struggled to get a grip of the characters, there were too many names mentioned without personalities attached - this wasn't too much of a problem but my big problem came when I realised I only felt like I knew two of the five Lisbon sisters. If I felt like I knew them more then perhaps I would have cared about the book.
I recognised the ending was good but it could have been better. I got a sense of knowing what the author was trying to say but feeling he hadn't quite managed to say it.
After looking at the other reviews I realise I am in the minority - proving everyone has a different opinion. All I can guess is that I just didn't get it.
on 3 April 2007
This is a really fantastic book, beautifully observed and and elegantly written. It tells the story of 5 teenage sisters who all commit suicide, one after the other.
The book is told from the perspective of the boys who fantasise about them. Although their voices merge, it is the insight into those teenage boys which is the most real and striking - their obsessive fascination and cataloguing, their curiosity about the girls and everything about them, at an age when most actual physical boy-girl contact was awkward fumbling and sweaty hand-holding.
The description of the decay of the family home as the family slowly sinks into despair is equally convincing.
You are totally swept up into Eugenides world, through his evocative descriptions of dust, smells, and tiny details of observation.
Coppola's film is good, but not as good as the book, because in the end the film is about the Lisbon sisters, who remain ultimately enigmatic in the book, whereas the book is about the boys who observe them.
on 15 July 2013
Jeffrey Eugenides (b. 1960) turns up on 'books of the year' roundups in UK newspapers quite regularly so I thought I'd give his first novel a go. The Virgin Suicides (1993) concerns the successive self killings of the five Lisbon sisters, who range in age from 13 to 17. Despite the title, not all of the girls turn out to be virgins.
The book superbly evokes American school life of the 1970s and is particularly good on the trials of dating:
'our fathers and older brothers, our decrepit uncles had assured us that looks didn't matter if you were a boy...finally, confronted with clusters of clever girls blushing at Trip's approach, or yanking their braids to keep from smiling too much, we realised that our fathers, brothers and uncles had lied, and that no one was going to love us for our good grades.'
An unusual feature of the book is the use of the first person plural ('we') for the story, the book being narrated by a group of the Lisbon girls schoolboy contemporaries. This technique was later used even more succesfully in Joshua Ferris's magnificent And Then We Came to an End (2007).
Despite the book's virtues, it wasn't entirely to my taste. Eugenides clearly values atmosphere over narrative momentum, and for a quite substantial portion of the book it is not obvious what, if anything, is the point of suspense.
The prose, while fresh and carefully constructed, is rather 'literary' and effete. Much of the language would not be used outside the confines of the literary novel.
Finally, there is perhaps something voyeuristic about the way the teenage Lisbon sisters are described. No doubt this could be defended as reflecting the attitude of the schoolboy contemporaries of the sisters rather than the author's view, but it remains an uneasy element.
After reading Eugenides masterful Middlesex, I decided to go back and read his much slimmer debut novel in the hopes it was at least partially as good. While it's not quite as amazing as Middlesex, it is quite good in its own peculiar way. However, those who like their novels to answer the questions they raise should be forewarned, as they will likely find it a rather unsatisfying experience.
Set in the early '70s in the tony Detroit suburb of Grosse Point, the story's premise is outlined in the very first paragraph: over the course of a year, all five of the teenaged Lisbon sisters commit suicide. This year is described in an unusual second-person plural voice which is that of a group of neighborhood boys (now men) who, some twenty years later, are reviewing the results of their "investigation" into the suicides. (There doesn't seem be any particular point to laying this out as an investigation, as opposed to a memoir, and this framework is a little shaky in that various "exhibits" and "attachments" are referred to in the narrative, but unavailable to the reader.)
So while the reader is aware from the start that this is a tragedy, the expectation is that the story will go on to explain why this occurred, what drove the girls to do this. And while the story beautifully details that dismal year, and reports on all the speculation by the neighborhood adults who project their own worldviews onto the tragedy, it concludes: "We were certain only of the insufficiency of explanations." And that is presumably the main point of the book --that suicide cannot ever be explained because we can never have access to the person's thoughts and emotions. This also explains the use of the second-person perspective, as Eugenides implicitly rejects the notion of the omniscient narrator. The boys' obsession with the sisters is another enigma, and becomes almost as creepy and dark as the suicides, as we learn of their all-night vigils and serial-killeresque hoarding of Lisbon sister-related artifacts.
The writing has a certain dreamy ethereal ambiguity to it--there's definitely the haze of memory and a certain degree of nostalgia, but overlain with the essential mysteriousness of the five girls. We only get to know two of them particularly well: Cecilia, a kind of proto-goth who dyes her underwear black, and Lux, who attempts to find human connection via hedonism. In a sense, the book is kind of gothic horror story, shot through with moments of black humor (such as the when the men of the neighborhood struggle to remove the fence Cecilia impales herself on). The film version is utterly faithful to both this tone and the storyline itself.
on 10 December 2000
A worryingly-touching novel depicting the struggles of five young girls attempting to grow in the most restrictive of capacities. The story of the suicides is told through the inquisitive eyes of one of the girls many besotted victims. Eugenides' image of obsession and yearning is the feature point of his novel and its jigsaw-like narration allows it to retain a wonderful sense of ambiguity. Eugenides major triumph is his ability to shock. In a novel which reveals its conclusion within the first two lines, it is amazing how it is able to create a false sense of hope from the reader. 'The Virgin Suicides' is beautifully eloquent and Eugenides' vivid imagery makes it a very engaging read. This skill is evident in his superb ability to produce a sense of awkwardness that almost makes the reader feel bad for prying. Even though Eugenides' is dealing with a difficult subject like suicide he still creates a dark and humourous account which actually lightens with every read. 'The Virgin Suicides' by Jeffrey Eugenides, which has now been adapted by Sofia Coppola to a feature-length film is coincidentally his first novel as is Sofia Coppola's directorial debut. The film takes a more light-hearted view of the situation whereas the book delivers the story with a more morbid and frightening truth. There are parts however where the novel loses its gripping edge. But it Eugenides is quick to pull it back on track and into the realms of surrealism. 'The Virgin Suicides' is a remarkable novel and Eugenides' melancholic tone throughout makes it so powerful and evocative.
on 12 May 2002
I saw the film and wanted to read the book to understand the concept more. I wasn't disappointed and was sucked in by the world the boys inhabit and the intensity of their feelings. The girls are indeed mystical creatures and fascinated me from beginning to end. This is a must for all who have seen the film and should not be missed!!!!!
on 4 December 2012
"The Virgin Suicides" has been my favourite novel since I was fifteen (ten long years ago now) and I enjoy it as much now as I did then. It is a beautifully sad tale that follows the Lisbon sisters, living in Grosse Pointe Michigan, watched from afar by their besotted adolescent boy neighbours who document their every move.
The novel opens with the attempted suicide of the youngest sister, Cecilia, who is found "like a Stoic" with bleeding wrists in the family bathtub. From this dramatic beginning, the reader is guided through the lives of the Lisbons (though from an outside perspective) as the girls are increasingly stifled by their over-protective parents in the face of a family tragedy that ultimately leads to the suicide of all five girls.
The narration style is unique as the story is told from the perspective of the Lisbon's neighbours, detailing their encounters with the mysterious creatures that they cannot fathom. We understand the girls only as the boys do - from caught glances and overheard words. They presume so much and know so little about these ethereal sisters that they seem to adore yet hardly know.
Eugenides writing is truly masterful; he manages to create a hazy atmosphere of teenage obsession with witty, albeit dark, humour. The prose is subtle yet mysterious, reflecting the nature of the novel and of the girls themselves. The language Eugenides employs sets a tone of sadness and fated tragedy as though the course events was imposible to avert.
The plot meanders through various experiences of the sisters that are examined minutely by their adolescent admirers; experiences that tell them so little of the reasons behind their eventual tragic deaths. The subtlety that Eugenides writes with is so powerful - with little dialogue, so much is said and implied.
The ambiguity is so reflective of life itself and that tragedies such as these rarely have a definitive cause. Rather it is a culmination of events, people, thoughts and feelings that lead to such a sad act. Eugenides allows the reader their own opinion of why the girls chose such an end rather than tell you how to feel; he resists wrapping up the reasons and allows contemplation, adding to the philosophical and thoughtful nature throughout the novel.
All I can say is that this is so beautifully written with poignant, atmospheric prose and original narration style.
This will forever be my favourite novel.
on 10 July 2007
This is a beautifully written book about a five sisters who commit suicide. It has a unique style in that there is no real protagonist. Instead there are two groups of characters. The first are the Lisbon girls, whose far-away lives and deaths drive the book. Then are the teenage boys who admire and idolise them. Although the book is written from their point of view, the reader has insight into these boys only through their feelings and actions towards the girls.
This unfathomable nature of the characters is purposeful because the book is about the impossibility of understanding adolescence, both of others' and your own. The main characters struggle to understand the Lisbon girls as if revealing the truth about them would explain something in their own lives. The final act of suicide, which tears the girls out of their reach completely, is the most mysterious of all, and leaves them obsessed.
As the boys ponder about the suicides (years later when they are grown men), collect weird items that the girls left behind and speak to everyone who has interacted with them, you begin to put together a hazy and hopelessly incomplete image of the girls' lives. In the end, no one can explain the motivations behind the their actions, and the reader, like every character in the book, is left wondering.
I would recommend reading the book and watching the film - both equally enchanting.
Jeffrey Eugenides' first novel The Virgin Suicides is an almost surreal, haunting, wholly unforgettable work of literary art. It has an almost unmatched depth and resonance that penetrates deeply into the ephemeral layers of life and humanity. In company with the vaguely revealed narrator and his former childhood friends, the reader becomes a peeping tom spying on the five young ladies next door and developing an intense need to understand their innermost thoughts and feelings and to come to know what terrible forces lurking inside that increasingly deteriorating house could possibly lead each of them to take their own lives. There's no real mystery to this story, as the reader is told from the very first page that the five girls will all commit suicide; the heart of the novel lies in the search for answers that can never truly be forthcoming.
The Lisbon girls - Cecilia (13), Lux (14), Bonnie (15), Mary (16), and Theresa (17) haunt every page of this novel; even as one reads about their lives during the tumultuous year in which all would commit suicide, one sees only ephemeral visions of what they could have been without any penetrating snapshots of their engaging in life in a literal sense. Cecilia, the youngest, is the first to go. Three weeks after slitting her wrists in an unsuccessful attempt to die, she leaves a party thrown for her own benefit and hurls herself from an upstairs window onto a picket fence. The neighborhood boys are there when it happens and thus feel an intense link to the lovely girls next door who die without ever really having lived. We hear their private conversations and speculations about the girls and witness their attempts to both penetrate the deadly gloom that soon wraps the house in a death shroud as well as to somehow save the girls from a fate seemingly forced upon them by destiny. While certain adolescent issues of a sexual nature meander through their thoughts, the image they cast of the girls is one of purity of a sort. Even Lux, the one sister who is far from virginal, comes across as some type of mystical being whose most sordid of acts seems less than unclean.
All we learn about the tragic sisters comes from our narrator and his friends, boys whose fascination and surreal love for the girls never loses its hold on them in later adulthood. The images conveyed about the mysterious interior of the house and the complete and utter breakdown of the entire, tragic Lisbon family is filtered through their eyes. The Virgin Suicides really is a type of ghost story and as such can only be analyzed and pondered over without being "solved." Eugenides does seem to wander off into tangents on a couple of occasions, but by and large he builds this story up beautifully to its previously stated yet still tragically shocking ending. The novel gets under your skin and penetrates your very heart, leaving a very real emotional imprint on the reader's mind and soul. This is an exquisitely written masterpiece of a novel, lyrically gripping in its style and mesmerizing in its emotional impact.
Set sometime in the early 1970's in a Michigan suburb, this is the disturbing story of five sisters who all commit suicide over a year. Told from the point of view of a group of neighbourhood boys, now men, who were infatuated by the girls, it is partly a recreation of events and partly an attempt to explain why the Lisbon sisters are still so important to those whose life they shaped.
The five sisters are Therese, 17, Mary 16, Bonnie, 15, Lux, 14 and Cecilia, 13. Their father, Mr Lisbon, is a maths teacher at the school that both the boys telling the story and the girls themselves, attend at the beginning of the book. Their mother is a librarian, although there is no mention of her life outside the home and she is seen as a strict woman who attempts to control her daughter's behaviour - although only doing what she feels is right to protect them. Meanwhile, the boys watch and wait and try to learn about the sisters, collecting various objects associated with the girls (mentioned as `exhibits' in the storyline) such as photographs or items of clothing. The whole sense of the novel is oppressive; the girls are kept on a tight rein and outside their door are the neighbourhood boys, keeping a watch on them.
This is a novel I have long meant to read and I am glad that it matched my expectations. The writing is simple, yet expressive. Although you know what is going to happen, the story unfolds almost gently. Expected and yet shocking. There is never a real sense that the grown boys expect to fathom what happened, but it is almost like looking back in time and seeing a photograph develop, as the characters are breathed into life. A beautiful novel and one I really enjoyed.