I first read this book when I was about 13. Captivated by a salacious title and an intriguing front cover – the lifeless white stockinged limbs of a teenage girl – I thought it was young adult literature and an easy read. I didn’t finish it. It was much more nuanced than I expected, and not the simple ‘beginning-middle-end’ story I was looking for. On re-visiting it, some 12 years later at the encouragement of one of my most well-read friends, I still found it didn’t deliver quite what you think it’s going to, but that I appreciated the book much more nonetheless.
The book’s title instantly grabs you. I think as a society we have a fascination with death and sex so putting both in the title of your novel is a sure fire way to get yourself noticed. That’s possibly why it can end up falling slightly flat – such a bold title promises shock factor, it promises to be graphic and it promises to be unapologetic. What we actually get in The Virgin Suicides is a commentary on adolescence, nostalgia and growing up. It’s a story about death and sex but about how death affects others, and about how sex and female sexuality is perceived by others. The girls, on whom this entire story hangs, and about which the title refers, are never really given a voice. As many people have said, the book ‘isn’t really about them’. Although the suicides of the girls are important, they are not the centre of the book at all.
So, once you’ve let go of the expectation that this is a psychological thriller dealing with the ‘why’ behind the suicides of a group of virgins, you can appreciate the book for what it is. A quick plot summary (without giving too much away): the Lisbons are a family of two parents and five teenage girls who live in an American suburb in the 1970s. The girls are an object of acute fascination to the teenage male population, both out of lust and curiosity due to their aloof nature. As the title suggests, all girls eventually commit suicide, but the narrative is really a timeline of the contact the boys of the neighbourhood have with the girls as they try to come to terms with the events that have taken place and find reason behind them.
One of the reasons the book isn’t necessarily the easiest of reads is probably because of the point of view it is told by. The premise of the story is that it’s told from the perspective of the teenage boys, now men, who fancied the Lisbon girls to the point of obsession and were so intrigued by them that their suicides left them with lasting questions and unease. These boys are typical teenage boys. They view the girls as objects rather than people; their prolonged discomfort by the suicides seems to be from the effect it had on them rather than what the girls must have been going through. There is desire, in the end, for answers but you definitely get the sense that this is more for personal closure than real concern. Throughout the book, the boys are obsessed with the girls; they get details from every man, woman or boy who has a close personal interaction with them, they collect their possessions and commit all learnings about them to a personal memory bank. All this creates the overwhelming picture of the girls constantly in the role they play for them rather than their actual characters. If the novel were written from the perspective of the girls it would be a very different novel – perhaps one that some people might enjoy more (maybe myself included) – but we have to dispense with hypothesis and evaluate the book for what it is.
Eugenides has evidently chosen this perspective for a reason. In doing so, he is deliberately creating a narrative that shines a fairly stark light on adolescence and the interaction of the different sexes during this particular period of life. The book is more about nostalgia and the memories of a life-defining moment for one group of boys. Just through the detail of the memories, you can tell how much these girls had an impact on these boys, and how much we as a reader become equally fascinated by them. We are drawn into their memories and their obsession through the us of ‘we’, ‘us’ and the tantalising tiny details from which we are forced to derive five full characters and project our own desires, impressions and preconceptions upon them. By the end of the novel it’s clear that the boys never really knew the girls at all, but are still trying to understand their actions based on their idea of who they were, resulting in endless irresolution.
It’s a beautifully written, well thought out book with an original story and that makes it worth reading. However, for me, I couldn’t get over the disappointment of the reality of the book vs. what I thought it was going to be. For that, it doesn’t go down as one of my favourites.
As a side comment, the film, directed by Sofia Coppola, is a really wonderful portrayal of the book. It is sensitive and thought provoking and really brings the essence of the story to life, so if you’re struggling to read on it might well help get you over the line!
Star rating: ♥♥♥♥♥