It isn’t every day one stumbles upon a book that is so vivid, its words and images swirl around the subconscious for weeks after. Continuing our series on books that had an impact on our lives, it was American author Jeffrey Eugenides’ debut novel The Virgin Suicides that had a lasting impact on me for this reason. I hadn’t heard of the book at all until I watched Sofia Coppola’s film adaptation and realised she didn’t write the source material. I picked it up at random one day years ago and haven’t forgotten it since.
It is a book not so much about suicide – although as the title suggests the five teenage Lisbon sisters do kill themselves – but about unrequited love and loss of wasted youth. The film’s ending had disturbed me – that chilling final scene – and I was hesitant to even read it on the page, but once you start dear reader, you will be unable to stop until the end. This is one of the reasons that Eugenides’ novel is so compelling; his prose is written in such a way – enticing and colourful – that one cannot help but turn the pages.
The story centres around the five Lisbon sisters – Therese, Mary, Bonnie, Lux and Cecilia – who are portrayed as figures of unattainable desire by our narrators; a group of neighbourhood boys who recount the lives of the girls (and their obsession with them) 20 years after the girls’ deaths. The boys, who are now middle-aged men, try to recall the events in as much detail as possible and having collected evidence and conducted interviews with all the central figures in the girls lives, set out to piece together a time in their lives that even decades later, they cannot forget.
Like true suburban detectives, they recollect a handful of memories, occasions and gestures. The stilted basement party; the only occasion they saw the inside of the Lisbon house, during which Cecilia, the first suicide, went to an upper floor and hurled herself to her death. Or the homecoming dance the remaining girls attended when Lux stayed out until dawn. This was to be the beginning of the end for the girls as after this, the sisters were removed from school by their clearly disturbed mother and incarcerated in their home (their father, though sympathetic, does nothing to help). As they become more isolated from the world, the narrators make a last ditch attempt to communicate with the imprisoned girls by playing meaningful popular songs down the phone line; trying to conceive an ill-fated plan to free them.
The book isn’t without its flaws. Why do the girls never try to free themselves? Nothing impedes the girls’ withdrawal from the world, and so the question remains unanswered, frustrating the reader. And our view of their life is warped by our almost unreliable narrators who cling to memories; merely snapshots of the girls and their irresistible allure with no resonating conclusions. The demise of the Lisbon sisters was almost meant to be, nothing suggests they could have escaped their end, yet the novel captivates; the narrator’s hypnotic voice ensuring we stay firmly put in a romanticised, mythical reality.
But by the end, I was so moved by the nostalgia, the intense regret and wasted loss of life. I thought about it for weeks after, that of someone looking back on my life with nothing but a handful of items and recollections; where the only thing that made an impact on someone was how I left the world. And like all great pieces of art, this one increased my resolve to really do something with my life; to reach for more and not remain haunted and unsettled by the past as the narrators so obviously were.
If you’ve yet to experience this one, add it to your must-read lists pronto.