One of the most intense books I’ve ever read, The Virgin Suicides by Jeffery Eugenides follows a non-linear structure, mimicking the process of research. This research is conducted by a group of mostly unnamed men who have been fixated with the Lisbon sisters since their teenagehood.
These sisters (Lux, Mary, Therese, Cecilia and Bonnie) fell to suicide within a year. The group of admirers want to know why, but after about 20 years, they end up with nothing despite their thorough investigation – interviews, even with the mysterious, strict and religious Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon, and artifacts including evidence from the suicide scenes.
The reason behind the suicides remains unsolved, why they wanted to die alone, and we also don’t know much about the girls. It plays with the book’s themes gossip (several interpretations/theories are made in regards to the suicides and the girls’ lives), observation, suicide associated with stigma and adults’ blindness to teen struggles (I wanted to smack Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon for being unable to understand their daughters on any level). The group of admirers/men/investigators only interact with the sisters in person once. Besides that, they only observe them from across the street or communicate from afar. Therefore, we have an unreliable narrator but the mystery and inconsistency are what intrigue me.
There are a lot of motiffs in the book including religious symbols/references, light/dark and in particular the Lisbon house. The Lisbon house serves as the medium between the family and the rest of the neighbourhood. The house deteriorates due to, well, we assume that the family has neglected household chores and obviously something wrong has been going on (but we don’t find out what). The decaying house and the description of its rotting smell and growing isolation reflects the breaking of the family unit, the unforgiving entity that is Time, and a disturbance to the American dream portrayed here which consists of happiness and consumerism but remain frozen in time. The neighbourhood is so concerned with happiness and consumerism that they get over the suicides, supposedly a blow to the perfect neighbourhood, quickly as if nothing happened. Ignorance and indulgences are bliss. However, the neighbourhood does lose its happiness and decays with people moving and changes according to time.
We can assume that since Cecilia is the first to commit suicide and it has a profound effect on her family, her sisters can’t live without her and also due to the frustration with living under a strict regime. There’s something about their suicides that’s disturbing. There’s a sense of gothic-ness to them. We know from the start they killed themselves and we wait for those moments but the deaths still shock us and it’s hard to forget how they died because of the grotesqueness and mundane-ness. The ordinary can turn into the unreal and it can hurt us.
I found it interesting and a little unnerving that the first and last sisters (Mary) to die have previously attempted suicide. Their deaths receive contrasting responses from the neighbourhood, giving the sense of a beginning and an end. More sympathy and shock with Cecilia, but indifference to Mary’s like they knew that she would meet her fate soon and thought there was no point in worrying OR the first suicide was shocking and after more suicides…the audience is bored – reflecting sensationalism of violent acts (the narrator makes a point that the people rely heavily on TV/news).
Even though the boys call the suicides selfish acts, the blame is mainly pinned on society for creating an unstable environment, for not listening to or treating teenagers as people, and the decline of that society is the consequence. It eerily reminds me of common responses to teen suicide in reality.
One last thing. The book is conscious of time. The narrator mentions that the group and him had difficulty remembering the Lisbon sisters’ appearances and voices after a long period of silence/isolation before their deaths – they needed contact or see them to remember. Back to the present, the artifacts used for the investigation are also aging and some are close to becoming dust but the group won’t forget the sisters. Because they witnessed their departure from the world.