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.