One of my blogger friends mentioned that this novel is narrated in the first person plural and as I happen to be a sucker for novels using interesting narrative techniques and as I have read only one other book so far with a first person plural narrator (Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris) in which the illusion was less than perfect, I definitely wanted to check this book out, just to see whether another writer can write in this way more convincingly than Joshua Ferris. I didn’t really care what this novel was about – but as soon as I started reading it I forgot about the fact that the story is „incidentally” told from a first person plural perspective. Not because Eugenides didn’t manage to write in a convincing fashion this way (he managed much better than Joshua Ferris) – simply because The Virgin Suicides is such a harrowingly beautiful and infinitely melancholy novel that while I was reading it, I simply forgot to think about the ways the author produces the effect he produces. It was enough for me that he did produce this effect. And The Virgin Suicides immediately became one of my all-time favorite teenager-novels, right beside The Catcher in the Rye and M.J. Hyland’s How the Light Gets In.
The story is set in one of white-fenced suburban neighborhoods of the deteriorating industrial city of Detroit. This is where the five Lisbon sisters (their ages ranging from thirteen to seventeen) live in a small house with their strict, religious mother and their helpless, floppy father. The girls are not allowed to go anywhere apart from the school and the church, they are not allowed to go on dates, and they are not allowed to wear make-up – so all their teenage femininity (or, to quote one my favourite novels, Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, the „thick sargasso sea of their femininity”) is crowded together behind the closed doors of their cramped family home. Naturally, the mysterious, unattainable girls move the imagination of all the teenage boys in the neighborhood, however, the boys don’t have the slightest chance to fulfill their dreams about the girls or even to get to know them more closely – partly because of the girls’ forced reclusiveness, and partly because within a one-year period, all five girls commit suicide.
The fact that within one year from the first (unsuccessful) suicide attempt of the youngest girl all the girls end up dead is clear from the very first page of the novel, so I didn’t reveal any vital plot elements here. And even though all the boys, adults, doctors, priests and journalists of the neighborhood are intrigued and deeply troubled by the five suicides, I wouldn’t even say that the main theme of the novel is the characters’ quest to find out why the Lisbon girls killed themselves. This is part of the novel, of course, and several possible reasons are mentioned in the book (family tendency; the slavish imitation of the example of the youngest girl; teenage depression; escapism; selfishness), but I don’t think that this is the gist of the novel.
For me the gist is that the narrators of the story, the boys from the neighborhood who used to fantasize about the Lisbon girls and who are now embittered middle-aged men are unable to forget the girls, even after 30 years. This is why they start out their quest, this is why they interview everyone who had anything to do with the mass suicides, and this is why they frantically collect and organize all the material and „evidence” they have about the girls’ lives. They don’t really hope to achieve anything this way since they are well aware of the fact that even if they managed to collect all the evidence and create a nice, logical story out of them, this wouldn’t change a single thing, because their lives and all their adult relationships had been shaped by the fact that they had known the Lisbon girls in their teenage years: a boy who once had the luck to make love to the single Lisbon girl who didn’t die a virgin would find every other woman only an obedient bed-warmer who just predictably comes screaming in the appropriate moment; and a boy who once had a single lock of his hair pulled to the other side of his forehead by one of the girls would comb his hair that way for the rest of his life.
For these boys the Lisbon girls are the embodiments of every possible male fantasy, every single female virtue and the zeitgeist at the same time, and the demise of the girls seems both the cause and the result of the deterioration of the neighborhood – the decline of the Detroit industry, the death of the trees on the street, and the increasingly shabby condition of the Lisbon family home. It’s impossible to find out whose decline started earlier, but it’s a case in point that the four hundred-day strike of the cemetery workers ends just when the four older Lisbon girls commit suicide, and contrary to all the people who died during the strike and whose corpses had to be stored in deep-freeze, they can be buried directly – as if they had just found their proper place on earth.
And it must be easier for them than for the boys who used to adore them and who stayed teenagers forever in their souls because of them (even though theirs was not such a particularly good teenage period which might have been worth clinging to), and who keep re-visiting their memories just like Holden Caulfield keeps re-visiting the museum where nothing ever changes.