Confession time: I still haven’t quite finished The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides.
What? I’ve had a lot going on.
I have, however, made enough progress that I have something to say about it, and those things involve spoilers, just so you know.
First: I find it interesting that the book is from the collective first person POV: “we.” The only other story I can recall using that perspective was Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” It works on the same level in this story, managing to show the “otherness” of the Lisbon girls just like Faulkner’s story did for Emily. The difference is that the narrators of The Virgin Suicides see the Lisbon girls as a collective group like they themselves are, so while it “others” them, it also unifies them. That unification makes it possible to imagine the events the narrators keep referring to: that each girl commits suicide after the first.
The narrators also keep referring to evidence: “exhibit #9” and so forth. They talk about interviewing people after the fact, years after the fact. It leads the reader to believe there is an intense investigation going on, but no indication (at least, not yet) of why that might have happened so long after the suicides.
While the narrative style works to show the girls as a mystery the boys can’t understand, it doesn’t help readers to become emotional invested in the characters as individuals. Mainly we become attached to Lux because the narrators (men) were so in love with her while she was alive and that shines through in the facts they focus on. The rest of the girls become an extension of her. Beyond the thought of “poor girls” when you hear of their sister’s death and realize how badly their mother failed them, there isn’t much room for an emotional connection. It all stems from Lux. The story wouldn’t have been very different if there had only been three Lisbon girls: Cecelia, to set things in motion, Lux, to be the center-point as she already is, and then one of the other girls to follow in Lux’s stride. The girls aren’t developed enough to matter as individual characters.
The story reminds me a lot of the manic pixie dream-girl trope as the narrators admire her from afar and comment on the tragedy of it all.
That being said, I don’t hate it. In fact, I’m enjoying it a lot. It has a lot to do with the prose. Eugenides has a way of describing it all that is both poetic and matter-of-fact. It even feels like he, as the author, is highlighting the mistakes his narrators are making in interpreting the Lisbon girls. I can see why it’s considered a classic.
There are rare glimpses of the girls that aren’t distorted by the narrators’ lens that lead me to believe the author knows better than his narrators. One of my favorite moments in the book happens that way. After Cecelia’s first attempt, when the doctor is patronizing her and saying she’s “not even old enough to know how bad life gets,” Cecelia answers him, “Obviously…you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.”
It’s a heavy read, but not an overly difficult one. The collective POV also helps to distance the reader in a way that makes it easier to get from page to page. I do still have a ways to go, but I’d recommend it so far. At the very least, it’s definitely one of those books that makes you think.