For the benefit of those who, like me, have missed the film, the plot of ‘The Virgin Suicides’ is still fairly easy to grasp. There are five teenage sisters, all of whom commit suicide. I’m not giving away too much of the story here, as the book begins with its own intriguing spoiler ‘On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Thereses…’ In the style of a Greek tragedy, the narrative then goes back to the beginning, unpicking sequence of deaths and attempting to draw conclusions about life, adolescence and modern-day America.
The tone is masterful, compellingly readable and ambitious without being obstructively self-conscious. The whole novel is narrated in the first person plural, the neighbourhood boys attempting to piece together the whole story, years after the event. What could be a literary gimmick works very well, adding to the communal yet claustrophobic atmosphere of the story. The impotence of these witnesses, both during and after the deaths of the girls, is symptomatic of the stifling parochial life from which all the adolescents in the book try to escape.
Tempering (or enhancing, depending on your point of view) this bleak representation of American suburban malaise, is the black humour which runs through the novel. As the first sentence shows, even death is treated with irreverence, the girls taking their ‘turn at suicide’ before incongruously un-glamorous paramedics mutter ‘This ain’t TV, folks, this is how fast we can go’. Considering its heavy-weight topic, this is a quick read, partially due to Eugenides’s imagination when it comes to detail, both in word choices and characterisation.
The Virgin Suicides is a very good book, especially if you like your social commentary lyrical, symbolic and satirical. There are faults – of the five suicidal daughters, only two emerge as detailed characters and one of these, as an apparent nymphomaniac, seems to contradict the promise of the title. But these are small problems when set against everything that works. If read at the right time I could see this being favourite book; I suspect older teens and readers in their early twenties will identify most effectively with the combination of angst and black humour. Even if it doesn’t quite hit this high point for you, it is a book I confidently recommend.