I so very much wanted to love The Virgin Suicides but all I could muster was profound admiration and regard for Jeffrey Eugenides’ undeniable brilliance as a writer.
That’s good right? Admiration, brilliance, high regard – they’re what you’re looking for in and from a book, aren’t they?
Well, yes – but I’m greedy. I want more. I am a reader who is looking for love and, like my own virginity experience, this novel left me cold and wanting.
Okay, that was a clear case of overshare and I hope my dad doesn’t read this particular post but I believe that this is what creates empathy: these moments of sharing, these secret admissions and tongue-slips of humanity. I want to know about you. I want to tell you something about me. I want to understand and care.
In a way, I was in exactly the same position as the young boys in a dull suburb in Detroit where the story of five sisters suicides takes place. I too was trying to make meaning out of a paucity of sense or reason. I too was stumbling through the inadequacy of explanation, trying to get a true glimpse of the Lisbon sisters behind their adolescent bars. I tried so hard to reach them, to know them, to understand – something, anything – about them. But they eluded and baffled me, left me cold and wanting.
How has Eugenides written a book so exacting and so detailed yet so bare and insufficient? How has he written a tragedy that left me so numb and unaffected?
It’s his choice of narrative technique.
One of the first decisions a writer makes is “Who is going to tell the reader what happened? Whose story is this?” The decision depends, in part, on the effect you are trying to achieve and what you ultimately want to say.
Though the ostensible objects of the novel are the five Lisbon sisters, The Virgin Suicides is, in fact, the story of a group of teenage boys who lived on the same street and went to the same school as a family of girls who killed themselves. Their story is composed of fragmented, partial memories, speculation and conjecture. Apart from one ill-fated party and an anticlimactic prom, they barely even spoke to them. They never actually knew them. And, so, neither can we.
The effect is frustrating, disconcerting, and produces that feeling of dissatisfaction and inadequacy I spoke of.
It was a brilliant choice by Eugenides – the only choice to create the feeling of searching, grasping numbness that follows the unnatural, inexplicable death by suicide. It cannot be explained. That’s what Eugenides was trying to say and so he silenced the girls and hid them away inside his novel as they were hidden away inside their home.
Technically, it’s flawless. Reading the novel as a neophyte writer, I learned so much and marveled at the craft that is Writing at its best. It’s a great lesson in mirroring meaning with style and content.
Reading it as Deborah, though, as a person who wants to know and understand the people she’s reading about… well, this book was hard for me to love. The boys were in love and they explained it as best they could but not enough for their reasons to become reason for me. And while the boys grew up forever haunted by their memories, I’m afraid to say I forgot about this book faster than decaying Detroit forgot those lovely girls. Their names were Cecilia, Bonnie, Mary, something, and Lux.
And that’s not what I want from a book. Like love, I like it when it lingers a while.