It’s been almost a year since I read this book and it’s difficult to fully convey my feelings about it. All I knew when I put it down, after two days’ feverish reading, was that this book had changed me, and would continue to change me. I cherished it without knowing why. This post is less of a review and more of an ode, just like this book if less of an exploration of suicide and more of a poem dedicated to the five girls who made a suicide pact. By taking their lives, the Lisbon sisters affected an entire suburban town and inspired a lifelong obsession in the boys of the neighborhood who find themselves haunted, in their middle age, by the events of a single year of their adolescence.
The narrative begins with a description of thirteen-year-old Cecilia’s first suicide attempt. Her parents find her in a full tub having slit her wrists. Skinny, pale, blonde, and wearing a wedding dress, Cecilia feels like the classic tortured teenager. Sitting in a hospital bed with bandaged wrists, Cecilia is asked by a doctor why she wanted to take her life. He says she’s “not even old enough to know how bad life gets.” Cecilia responds, “Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.” (5) This chilling rejoinder sets the tone for the novel and introduces the reader to the real private angst of adolescent girls.
Cecilia does accomplish her goal, in a gruesome and public manner, and the rest of the novel follows the actions of the remaining four Lisbon sisters, Mary, Therese, Lux, and Bonnie, as we watch them cope with the suicide of their sister and struggle with their identities.
What is brilliant and moving about this novel is that it’s not strictly about five girls committing suicide, it’s about a group of boys and how they experienced and perceived the event of five girls committing suicide. Everything about the narrative–the characters, the events–is filtered through the eyes of the teenage boys who witnessed it all, from Cecilia’s first attempt at suicide to Mary’s last, and all the others’ in between. Readers only get to know the five sisters from brief glimpses into their lives, all through the point of view of the boys who never really knew them, who admired and grew obsessed with them, and who ultimately could not save them.
Suicide is right there in the title but this novel is more about life than death. The way it’s written makes it feel like a myth or legend, something eerie like a ghost story, separated by a layer of unreality, but ultimately possible and haunting. Weaved into the narrative is an exploration of suburban, middle-class life that reminded me of Middlesex. Most people in the neighborhood have a commitment to upholding the suburban American ideal of a nuclear family and a nice house–you know, the white-picket-fence thing. They do not entertain the possibility of intense depression and an aversion to this way of life, or even conceive that there is something better or more desirable for some. Nor can they understand what could have driven five normal girls, with all the possibilities in the world for an American teenager, to kill themselves.
In the words of an elderly Greek woman,
We Greeks are a moody people. Suicide makes sense to us. Putting up Christmas lights after your own daughter does it–that makes no sense. What my yia yia could never understand about America was why everyone pretended to be happy all the time. (169)
The American ideal is critiqued, yes, but it’s also suggested that this aspiration to live up to expectations contributed to the girls’ desperation and depression, that somehow these girls knew they could never achieve happiness and chose another way out.
The novel also critiques media and personal perception of death and suicide, and how tragic events are transmuted into sensational events to be aired on TV and written about in newspapers ad nauseum. After Cecilia’s death, reporters appear at the Lisbons’ door day after day, searching for a scoop. The media tries desperately to parse Cecilia’s motives and her psychological health, searching for a reason, and searching for more viable stories to print and air. Meanwhile, the neighborhood prints leaflets with helpful information about suicide such as stats and prevention tips. This ridiculous response shows a patent lack of understanding about the realities of depression and suicide and echoes this suburban concept that everything can be solved and perfect happiness achieved.
The Virgin Suicides, despite the title and subject matter, keeps you detached from suicide. Just like the boys, we will never understand the true motives of the girls, or of the real people like them. It’s tragic and traumatizing. That’s why this novel is so haunting, but it’s also why it makes great literature: it forces readers to challenge their perceptions and reach new levels of understanding about something unexplainable. Perhaps, in this case, the explanation is that there is none. There is no why. There is no closure. You don’t get over it.
We knew that Cecilia had killed herself because she was a misfit, because the beyond called to her, and we knew that her sisters, once abandoned, felt her calling from that place, too. But even as we make these conclusions we feel our throats plugging up, because they are both true and untrue…we are certain only of the insufficiency of explanations. (241)
Eugenides, J. (1993) The Virgin Suicides. New York, NY: Picador.