Tag Archives: Jeffrey Eugenides

‘The Virgin Suicides’ by Jeffrey Eugenides

Ever read a book compulsively over a few hours only to finish thinking, “that was just OK”? That was my conundrum of an experience with Jeffrey Eugenides’s 1993 debut The Virgin Suicides. Eugenides’s innovative narrative structure and unique plot had me deeply engaged, but in the end, the novel’s allegorical nature left me unsatisfied.

The Virgin Suicides charts a group of teenage boys as they obsessively monitor the actions of the five Lisbon sisters, their neighbors in a modest suburb of Detroit. The boys’ fascination is first a product of the sisters’ beauty, but their obsession escalates when Cecelia, the youngest, commits suicide at a party the boys attend. The novel relays the events that follow over the next year, culminating in the suicides of the four remaining girls.

One cannot provide an adequate commentary on The Virgin Suicides without a note on its construction. The action of the novel is relayed to the reader in the first person plural, nearly twenty years after the events actually take place. The novel has the feel of an amateur police procedural, complete with pieces of evidence referred to as “Exhibits” throughout. While I normally find it difficult to engage with a book that lacks a distinct narrative presence, the group narration in this novel feels appropriate, effectively portraying the “otherness” of the Lisbon girls as they self-destruct.

While the plot and narrative technique of the novel kept the pages turning, I ultimately had some trouble grappling with the extreme situations it details. Over the course of the relatively slim volume, five girls commit suicide (over the course of seven attempts), a fourteen-year-old is subjected to several occasions of statutory rape, and a group of hot-blooded teenage boys altruistically watch over their beautiful, female neighbors seeking to rescue them from their despair. While all of this makes for a hauntingly unusual read, the dramatic events of the novel begins to feel like allegory instead of a genuine portrayal of the real experience of having one’s innocence destroyed.

Finally, a word on the fish flies. As the child of suburban Detroit myself, I recall firsthand the surreal effect these smelly, fishlike insects can have on the neighborhood as they cover its every surface for a few irritating weeks each summer. Therefore when these nuisances invaded the Lisbons’ neighborhood, I understood viscerally that they were to be read as a sign of disaster ahead. As a reference point, here is an idea of what these insects are capable of:

Overall, I truly enjoyed the time I spent with Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides. It wasn’t perfect, but it is certainly deserving of the praise and high profile film adaptation it has garnered.

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‘The Marriage Plot’ by Jeffrey Eugenides

I had a feeling I was going to like The Marriage Plot, the latest from Pulitzer Prizewinner Jeffrey Eugenides. The novel centers around three Ivy League college students just after their graduation—a time of life I am very familiar with as a member of the Arizona State Unviersity Class of 2007. In fact, I couldn’t help but find comparisons to my own post-collegiate life in all three of Eugenides’s main characters (save for manic depression, thank goodness). This believability, partnered with an engaging narrative and seductive literary backdrop, made this novel a recent favorite of mine.

As the title suggests, The Marriage Plot contains a love story. Fortunately, however, it is much more than that. Like the classics of the Regency and Victorian eras it references, this novel explores that critical juncture in a young person’s life in which the trajectory of the rest of his/her adult life is determined. However, while Jane Austen and George Eliot were required to focus their plots around the social demand of marriage, the characters in Eugenides’s novel have many other options.

Madeleine Hanna loves books. This much is clear by the opening paragraph: a detailed chronicle of the contents of the heroine’s library. In college, however, Madeleine is distracted—as basically all young people are—by the opposite sex. She meets the studious Mitchell Grammaticus as a freshman, but he quickly falls into the much maligned “friend zone”. While he continues to pine for her, Madeleine becomes smitten with Leonard Bankhead, a brilliant biology student who suffers from severe manic depression. As their love triangle plays out, Madeleine, Mitchell and Leonard struggle to maintain a hold on their non-sexual passions—literature, spirituality and science, respectively—leaving them all feeling emptier because of it.

Throughout The Marriage Plot there is a strong contrast between conventionality and innovation. At Brown University in the early 1980s, the setting at the opening of the novel, the study of literature experienced a philosophic overhaul. Madeleine, a dutiful English major and lover of the Victorian canon, takes a course in semiotics simply to see what all the buzz is about. As a result, she meets Leonard and becomes enraptured by the nontraditional kind of life he has to offer. Mitchell, despite his commonplace blue-collar upbringing, is spiritual and desires to overcome his agnosticism. Mitchell rejects his family’s church-on-Sunday view of religion in favor of a yearlong spiritual exploration that leads him to draw some unsettling conclusions about himself.

While there is much to love about The Marriage Plot, the novel is not without its flaws. In spite of the novel’s references to new and inventive ways of looking at literature, The Marriage Plot does not necessarily offer anything fresh in the way of form or content. In terms of form, the switches in point-of-view have already been done very well recently by Jonathan Franzen. Regarding content, the coming-of-age plot in a campus setting is very engaging here, but it is certainly not a format I haven’t enjoyed before.

Overall, I very much enjoyed The Marriage Plot. Jeffrey Eugenides’s new novel comes recommended to English majors and lovers of literature everywhere.