The Virgin Suicides: An end disguised as a beginning

jeffrey-eugenides_the-virgin-suicidesThe Lisbon girls are blonde, beautiful, and out of reach. One by one, over the course of a year, each of the girls, blessed in mind and body, takes her own life. The events leading up to the startling loss are recounted by five neighborhood boys who grow up spying on the girls. The boys are equally fascinated and horrified with how the girls––Therese, Mary, Bonnie, Lux, and Cecilia––approach existence. The plot, set during the downfall of America’s auto industry in the 1970s, unfolds in a leafy suburb of Michigan, making the novel, in and of itself, a tribute to the mythology that is built into a suburban childhood.

A religious household, disconnected parents, and five teenage girls falling out of touch with the world around them. Seldom does a novel not only comprehend the teenage condition with clarity, but also grasp that the space between childhood and adulthood is a time capsule of happenings, regrets, and subtle transformations. Even rarer is a novel about teenage angst that, by virtue of the quality of the writing, is considered a work of literature, and one for adults. Jeffrey Eugenides’s debut novel, The Virgin Suicides, sent ripples throughout the literary world when it was first published in 1993. A quirky piece, the novel captures the quietly violent struggle of young adults who fall into an isolating mindset, perpetuated by their upbringing, and who continue to fall as those around them watch, criticize, and, ultimately, look away in distaste. Reminiscent in style of a Greek tragedy, and told in the same lulling rhythm as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, Eugenides constructs a contradictory novel that is at the same time a coming of age story and a story of how a tremendous loss slowly transpires. Indirectly, Eugenides argues against the mode of suicide as a solution to escaping conflict when teenagers feel the need to tear away from this world.    

The novel’s first line is straightforwardly morbid: “On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide….the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.” Eugenides’s  tone is dry, and so desperately funny that it evokes laughter despite the heaviness of the situations described. Even so, he refuses to make light of the complications that are symptomatic of the teenage mind and that can lead to suicide.

From the first chapter, the stage is set for the unthinkable to arise. Cecilia, the youngest at 13 and the only outwardly defective child, only ever wears a vintage wedding dress, the bottom half of which she has slashed. The girls’ mother immerses herself in the confines of religion, tying her soul to her church for the stringent rules it provides and not for the meaning of life it represents. Their father is an awkward math teacher who works at their private Catholic school, and who habitually misunderstands his daughters.  

“Cecilia was the first to go.” She dies crashing down the last line of the first chapter.

The novel is not beautiful because it’s about suicide. It’s beautiful because it argues against the longing for hopelessness, against the urge to reach the other side of the age divide through a means besides growing up. It’s a testament to living, through ugliness and through despair…even if one has the ability to understand that the future is also ugliness and despair wearing different disguises. Eugenides poetically demands that the reader understand that it is better to live, always.

In the final pages, Eugenides leaves readers with one last contradiction, with statements that construct their own oppositions, and with anger but also a sense of understanding: “What lingered after them was not life, which always overcomes natural death, but the most trivial list of mundane facts: a clock ticking on the wall, a room dim at noon, and the outrageousness of a human being thinking only of herself.”

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