Review: The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Virgin Suicides - Jeffrey Eugenides

Death is not a pleasant topic, and one which most people shy away from speaking or even thinking about. Death is so complete, so final, a great mystery. And we're all hurling towards it, this same fascinating, terrifying, inevitable unknown.


Jeffrey Eugenides captures this beautifully in The Virgin Suicides, with his story of an entire neighbourhood, or town affected forever by the suicides of five young sisters one summer as observed through the eyes of their teenage-boy neighbours. It is with a kind of morbid curiosity that the boys investigate the circumstances surrounding the girls deaths, recounting their story years later now as grown middle-aged men, still deeply changed by what happened.

This grim subject matter is wonderfully presented through beautiful prose, removing the horror from what would otherwise be an unbearably heavy plot line. Jeffrey Eugenides weaves together a picture of a whole town in mourning and a family bending, breaking and decaying beneath the weight if their loss through some poetic metaphors and descriptions, for example using the death of the diseased elm trees to reflect the deaths of the sisters. It's this, plus the depth of the characterisation which really gives the book it's staying power and keeps it fresh in your mind.


I found the whole thing mesmerising. I read it when I was quite young and it opened my eyes to the reality of death and the mark you leave behind in the world when you are gone. So many people's lives in the story were altered by the decision the girls made to take their own lives. Their actions are like ripples, spreading out to touch even those who didn't know them personally and who were merely onlookers, like the narrators themselves. They were not friends with the girls, who were not allowed to date or socialise with boys due to their strict mother's rules, they were not close with the family. They were neighbours, school mates, they knew them by association, and yet still, many years later these boys, now men are perplexed and fascinated, horrified and stuck on these girls and their short lives and their untimely deaths. The story highlighted, for me, our human curiosity, even for something as macabre as death, and also our amazing ability to hold the knowledge of something so frighteningly, terribly inevitable as death in our minds and still find a way to function in day-to-day life. Thinking of things this way, I suppose you could call even the most dedicated pessimist optimistic, as we all must find a way to carry on and live beneath the weight of this terrible knowledge and being able to ignore this fact for an entire lifetime is, I suppose the greatest feat of optimism there is!


The book has such a sad, somber atmosphere to it that I always imagine the events to be taking place in black and white. It's a very thought provoking plot line, although not padded out or rich in action it is written in a way that I am there with the boys, collecting newspaper cuttings, watching through binoculars curious about the girls motives and desperate to discover what is awaiting us all. With Jeffrey Eugenides clever use of an unspecified number of narrators and his use of "we" and "us" to describe the story tellers, the reader is placed right alongside the rest of the neighbourhood wondering what the hell happened in the Lisbon household.


I know some will hate this book - read round the wrong way it is simply a rather dull unsolved mystery about some not altogether likeable characters. But in my opinion it is full of depth and communication about a subject that demands you think it over after reading. Don't read it as a discovery of what happened to the sisters, it is not ultimately about them. There are so many themes and subjects the story is about, the Lisbon sisters can be viewed almost as a catalyst for wider events: the everlasting pain they placed on those who knew them, the break down of the family, the decay of the whole neighbourhood, the permanent effect they had on the narrators as they grew and matured. It's a portrait of the way death changes us all, directly or not.