I first got acquainted with the writer through his Pulitzer winner, Middlesex, so I am pretty much familiar with his terrain. It’s an understatement that I’m looking forward to reading his début novel, The Virgin Suicides, which is about the story of five sisters who committed mass you-know-what. I’ve seen the film adaptation of this before reading, even before knowing about the literary prowess of Eugenides. Despite this familiarity, I still surprised for feeling so tense at each turn of the page, even up to the last.
The title pretty much gives away the premise of the book. It’s about the five Lisbon sisters who commit suicide. First, it was Cecilia (13), and then her sisters Therese (17), Mary (16), Bonnie (15), and Lux (14) followed their youngest sister’s act. One teenage suicide is shocking enough, what more if it were four teenage girls, four sisters, four suicide cases in one night?
Is that a spoiler? Perhaps, but you’ll soon read about it at the opening line of the novel. The narrators talk about the morning the girls are found with a short description of how they claimed their lives. And after that what? They, the narrating boys who are irresistibly drawn towards the girls, relate their slowly disintegrating images and memories of the Lisbon girls.
It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.
That, I must say, is one of the most unforgettable last sentences that I ever read. A little discrepancy: my edition does not have the last phrase (and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together), which is a bummer, but which gives me a reason to buy a new edition and reread the novel. It’s worth rereading it; I’ve read a local writer’s comment on it, saying that the novel is incandescent. If one were to highlight its beautiful sentences, one would end up highlighting the entire book.
Speaking of highlighting, the boys should have been faster and more diligent in highlighting every moment of the girls’ lives, for their memory of them is fast fading. Throughout the novel, the boys are persistently trying to recapture images of the girls, only to come up with blurry visions of them. They reconstruct the girls’ lives with evidences and reminiscences collected from garbage piles to people who barely had connections with the Lisbons. But however hard they try, they fail, for what they have of the girls is slowly, painfully slipping from their grip.
I meant that literally because all they have are random stuff that the girls owned when they were still alive: diaries, photographs, lipstick, bras, etc. And these, like any other object, are subject to the damage that the long and unnoticed passing of time can wreak on them. As these objects decay, so do their vision of the sisters, which is merely that: an impenetrable picture devoid of what the girls think and feel.
How can they give us an account of the girls’ lives if they have never been able to reach out to them? Could they be loyal to what they feel for the girls if with each perusal of the surviving “exhibits,” the magic is bit by bit diminished? Yes, they kept vigilant watch of the girls’ activities in their bedrooms night after night, especially after that incident when the four surviving girls were imprisoned in their home by the severe and overbearing Mrs. Lisbon, the mother. But is that enough?
So which is more tragic: the group suicide of the girls, or the obsession of the boys with the girls, who have almost nothing to do with them, and who are still, twenty to thirty years later, still haunted by their effects on them? Is single instantaneous loss worse than a gradual and prolonged one?
After Cecilia’s death, life did not stop. The parents both addressed and repressed the event. The school attempted to ease, in vain, the girls’ pain. The media ignored the mediocre suicide of a thirteen-year-old. The boys watched them with renewed curiosity. The Lisbon sisters went to school. They remarked that they just want to live, if people will allow them. And yet.
In that town where people went about their mundane routines, the girls are quickly forgotten. The boys kept them in their hearts. And as for myself, I feel this unease, creeping under my skin, wondering why why why, although really, that is not the point of it, but still, one cannot help asking them.
And my Lisbon girls (reading buddies):