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I read this book shortly after it was published in the UK in 1994 due to being in a book club and getting lots of new releases. I'm not in the book club any more but have re read a lot of the books I purchased over that time. When I found this book in the to read pile (and then move it on!) I wondered how much of it I would remember. I also remember watching the film when it was released in 1999.
A bit about
The title gives many clues to this book but on the first page we learn of a suicide attempt by Cecilia, the youngest of five teenage sisters. The book is narrated by a teenage boy (and latterly a grown man) as he attempts to explain how he and his friends tried to collate the evidence around the girls' suicides. The boys attend the same school as the sisters and they are a mysterious, diverse and quirky bunch constantly being reined in by their strict mother. We never learn the identity of the narrator, who just lives in the same street of the girls and keeps a constant vigil on their house through the summer of their distress.
We never see directly in to the girls' lives, just glimpses through the one house party they are allowed to have after Cecilia's first attempt. The school dance, which they are permitted to attend as their father teaches at the school and can keep a close eye on them. The comings and goings of the emergency medical team who visit the house after the girls' attempts. The delivery truck and the glimpse of the groceries they order. Each item is prized whether it's a garment or receipt that falls in to the boys' hands. Because this is the way the story is told, it gently unravels to show a picture of how the girls appear to live but never really know what they are thinking or feeling. It's all conjecture.
The girls are well described by our mysterious narrator. Vain Mary (16), who spends hours in front of the mirror applying makeup (well as much as her mother will let her). Pious and quiet Cecilia (13) who is devout to the virgin Mary and appears helpless against her own quest to end her life. Lux (14), the rampant one who can't get enough of the neighbourhood boys. Bonnie (15) and finally Therese (17). All the girls are described as short and round buttocked in denim with roundish cheeks. Despite that description the girls are thought by many to be beautiful with people wondering how their plain parents made such a pretty set of girls. The tastes, hobbies and clothes are covered in great detail in the book through the boys' observations. Mrs Lisbon is a strange one, who does not seem much affected by the girls' vent on suicide. The father appears in a daze most of the time, teaching at the school but not very well by the sound of it!
Did I enjoy reading this book? Well the content was a bit strange but I did want to read on more and although we knew the girls' ultimate end, I still had to read on to witness it for myself. It's a bit grizzly in parts so may not be for everyone but it is interesting to read about the infatuation of a group of teenage boys who would all have been happy for a little attention from any of the Lisbon sisters. A recommended read!
The Lisbon sisters live in a middle class neighbourhood in Michigan and their good looks and the fact that they are unavailable makes them the subject of intense interest from the neighbourhood boys. The boys spend hours imagining what goes on in the girl's lives and are amazed when their home is opened up for a party. The party comes to an abrupt end when Cecelia jumps from a window and dies instantly; nobody knows what has driven her to such a desperate act. How will life pan out for the remaining sisters in the aftermath of such a senseless and tragic event?
The Virgin Suicides is an unusual book as it is written from the first person plural perspective. The boys who were so obsessed with the Lisbon sisters when they were teenagers are now men and still trying to solve the mystery. The fact that we know that the sisters all kill themselves at the beginning of the book also makes it unusual since we normally only discover how a book ends after reading it; the beauty of this book is the suspense which is built up over the course of the story as you wonder how and when the girls will die. There are times when I wanted to jump into the pages of the book as I saw scenes unfolding and scream at the character to stop what they were doing and take a different path.
The book is set in American suburbia in the 1970s and the Lisbon's fit in well in the close neighbourhood where everyone pulls together to tend their gardens and keep everything in good order. The girls go to a private school where their dad is a teacher and their mum stays at home. They are a Catholic family and mum and dad like to keep close tabs on the girls by setting them strict rules and curfews. After Cecelia's death, the whole family goes into a slow decline and they withdraw from the world as they struggle to cope. The book shows how the family and wider community react to the suicide of a teenage girl and the massive impact such an event has on everyone who is touched by it.
The era is portrayed perfectly as are the teenage boys who worshiped the mysterious sisters. Spying on the girls could have been a really creepy thing to do but instead of seeming like stalkers, the boys seem like normal curious teenagers with massive crushes. They are still childlike in their devotion to the girls and the games they play to catch sight of them.
You don't get to know the Lisbon girls very well; perhaps this air of mystery keeps the reader wanting to know more about their lives and thoughts. Just as the neighbourhood boys only get to glance the girls from afar, the reader only gets brief glimpses of their existence and is left to guess how they must be thinking or feeling. I wanted to be a fly on the wall in their house to find out exactly what the girls talked about, what their relationships with each other were like and how they lived. I wanted to see how their parents treated them in light of the loss of Cecelia and whether or not they were to blame for what happened to their daughters. Most of all, like the boys, I wanted to know why the girls chose to end their lives and if anything could have been done to prevent it.
The Virgin Suicides is a very unusual book; it has a very dark subject but is also beautiful to read. The reader never learns who the narrator is or much about the mysterious Lisbon girls and their parents who are the subject of the story. This lack of depth can sometimes be frustrating but I have a feeling that this is exactly what Eugenides wanted you to feel. It is a book which will make you think about life and death and grief as you ponder the mystery of what drove the Lisbon girls over the edge
Every so often, I read a book that haunts me afterward.
The Virgin Suicides has seeped into my everyday life. I read it in three hours,about two weeks ago, and I am not entirely sure it will ever leave me.
Written by American author Jeffrey Eugenides in 1993, the book revolves around the suicides of five sisters in Grosse Point Michigan.
This novel is immediately different to your run of the mill book.
Its written in the first person plural, from the perspective of a group of teenage boys who try to piece together what happened to the sisters. It is written by *us*, and *we*.
The narrator is never named, never singled out. Its almost an anonymous culmination of the thoughts and feelings of the boys who become obsessed with the girls.
This is understandable. I also became obsessed with the Lisbon girls.
*Just a note. There are no spoilers to be given away here. The theme of the book is perfectly evident in the title, and the first line of the book,
"On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide..."
lets you know exactly how the story ends. Just wanted to let everyone know that I am giving away no sneaky plot lines.*
Set in the seventies, the book focuses upon the Lisbon family.
The Father is a math teacher at the local high school,the Mother is a housewife.
They have five daughters.Therese,17, Mary,16, Bonnie,15, Lux,14, and 13 year old Cecilia.
The boys,(the narrators) live on the same road as the girls, have an interest in them initially because of their blonde hair, and good looks.
This interest is intensified one night when the youngest Lisbon girl, Cecilia, attempts suicide. Weeks later, she tries again, and suceeds.
Suddenly, the Lisbon family becomes something mysterious and sordid. No one knows why Cecilia did what she did, and the narrators begin to document every movement of the Lisbon family that they can, collecting evidence.
When Lux Lisbon(incredibly precocious, and promicuous) starts missing curfews, after a romance with a high school boy, the girls are suddenly pulled out of school. The Father leaves work, and the family rarely leaves the house.
Their home falls into disrepair, and sightings of the girls become fewer and more far between.
This only heightens the boys interest. The girls are turned into tragic heroines in their heads.
One night, the boys are invited over for a secret meeting with the girls. They assume the Lisbon sisters are planning their escape.
Instead of escape, the boys find something far more horrifying, that will change their lives forever.
What I thought.
I don't know how to describe how this book made me feel without sounding silly.
It climbed inside me.
I needed to know more about the girls.
I think, to me, the whole book demonstrated how an ugly thing can be incredibly beautiful.
The girls suicides were a tragedy, but they also prevented them from becoming normal, ordinary, mundane. They were held forever as something beautiful, young and perfect, frozen in the memories of the boys who continued to idiolise them throughout their lives.There is something incredibly Miss Haversham (great expectations) about how the Lisbon home falls into disrepair, and the family are kind of frozen in time inside it.
What I also loved was the descriptions of the girls. They are not stereotypically perfect. They have flaws. The boys describe their "crowded" teeth, their short stature and round buttocks.....to me, this just makes them more beautiful. More strange. These wonderfully romantic creatures, modern day rapunzels, trapped in their fairtytale castle, they make their escape not be releasing their long blonde hair, but by killing themselves, one by one.
There is such a sense of isolation in the book. Of claustraphobia. Although the girls have each other, they have no one else. They are closed off in their house with nothing more but the memory of their youngest sister, and how she escaped.
Cecilia becomes something of a saint to them. They create a shrine to her after her death.
No wonder they followed the same path.
Cecilia, by killing herself so young, became immportal.
The world that the boys live in is hazy and beautiful. You can almost feel the heat shimmering from the pavements, the damp on the freshly mown lawns. The place they live in is so suburban. The people so ordinary, that the Lisbon girls become completely other. They are set apart from this world. Perhaps that's why they left it.
I am now in love with Lux Lisbon, who is clearly the most willful spirited and worldly of the girls. I wanted to be her. I wanted to smoke my cigerettes on top of the lockers in school. I wanted to have sex with random delivery men on the roof of my house. I wanted to play folk music portraying my inner most feelings over the phone to a bunch of appreciative and mystified teenage boys.
Perhaps not...but the characters are so beautifully written that you do find yourself enchanted by their strange ways and unusual habits. We are only given bits and pieces by the writer. We have to fill in the gaps ourselves.
I think that using the group of boys as narrators was a very clever device. There was no way that everything could be explained, as the boys only saw the situation from the outside. I think that had all the details been revealed, the book would have lost some of its magic.
Jeffrey Eugenides words are like music. His writing is so fluid and beautifully descriptive that it paints a picture for you.
If you like your novels to be beautifully written, thought provoking, wonderfully descriptive, and spellbinding, then this is one for you.
Even if you have already seen the film, then I would still recommend it. I enjoyed it immensely, and now consider it one of the best books I have ever read.
The novel inspired the 1999 Sofia Coppolla film, which is equally beautiful. in actual fact, had I not known that the book came first, I would have been convinced that the novel was based upon the movie. The film was so true to the book. It realised the feel and the atmosphere perfectly. Well worth a watch.
The book can be bought here for £5.59.