First published twenty years ago, The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides remains poignant and rich with dark humor. The account of the Lisbon sisters, whose mere existence – and ultimate demise – captured the attention of their entire community, is told in a plural form of the third person voice representing the neighborhood’s teenage boys. It’s not quite the “royal we” but is an interesting technique nonetheless.
Eugenides’s narrative takes place in a quiet Detroit suburb. Seasons are noted by references to fish-flies, fallen leaves and holiday lights. For the Lisbons, however, there are complications. The narrator(s) rely on observation and references to interviews conducted with other neighbors, teachers and clergy. Mention is also made of several “exhibits” which include medical reports and photographs.
The five sisters range in age from 13 to 17, and the youngest is the first to kill herself. It’s clear not just from this suicide which takes place early in the novel, but also from the title, that the others will follow suit. The narrators share this sense of the girls’ impending self-destruction. Eugenides masterfully creates tension, and toys with the reader suggesting the possibility that, perhaps, the girls will be unsuccessful.
However, this is not a work simply about teen angst with no way out. It is a coming of age chronicle and a love story. The narrator(s) are forever changed by their connection to the Lisbon family, but the impression is that would have been true even without suicide as part of the tale.
The Virgin Suicides