One of the more striking debuts of contemporary literature, Jeffery Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides has received lavish attention for its morbid subject matter and novel narrative voice. Using a unique first-person plural point of view, a collective “we” that stands for several boys who grew up together in the book, Eugenides plumbs the depths of teenage lust and angst in suburban America, meditating on how the unfulfilled and unfathomable past continues to haunt. The narrators, now middle-aged adults, revisit what they know about the five Lisbon girls’ lives and deaths through their own memories and interviews with neighbors, tracking the destruction of a family over thirteen months, and exploring the lingering feelings of love and pain that have persisted for twenty years. As witnesses to the girls’ demise, incapable of preventing the suicides of all five sisters, the narrators find that the innocence of their childhood cannot be reclaimed.
While the narrative describes the demise of the five Lisbon sisters in a Detroit suburb during the early 1970s, the story itself is told some two decades later by witnesses to the events. The Virgin Suicides is unique in that its narrative voice is first-person plural: “we” rather than “I”. The “we” is a group of teenage boys who live in the same neighborhood as the Lisbons and who as adults still try to comprehend the suicides. The number of boys in the novel is intentionally never made clear, though the film adaptation chose four.
The book begins with Cecilia, the youngest Lisbon, and her initial failed attempt at suicide. The reader learns that the sisters are spread out in age across the teenage years—Cecilia, 13; Lux, 14; Bonnie, 15; Mary, 16; Therese, 17—and each possesses a “glittering” and surprising beauty. Mrs. Lisbon runs a strict, churchgoing household that isolates the daughters, so much so that the narrators’ initial interaction with the Lisbons is via voyeuristic gazes from across the street. That the Lisbons had allowed only one neighborhood boy into the house increases the desire of the narrators to talk to the Lisbon sisters.
After the hospital psychiatrist recommends that Cecilia and her sisters be allowed to interact with males and wear makeup, the girls are allowed to “throw the first and only party of their short lives.” The narrators become enamored of the girls, particularly of Lux, who radiates “health and mischief.” At the party, Cecilia avoids interacting with the boys, later excusing herself from the party, and then “hurling herself out of the world” by jumping out of the window and impaling herself on a fence post. After the funeral, the boys get a hold of her diary and discover that “Cecilia writes of her sisters and herself as a single entity”; they develop an understanding of and kinship with the girls, “our twins.” Their infatuation grows.
The Lisbons, however, “recede into a mist” for the rest of the summer and into the school year. Lux, in spite of her parents’ ban on...