The Virgin Suicides is the debut novel of Greek-American author Jeffrey Eugenides. Set in suburban Middle America, in what I would guess to be the 1970s, it begins with the suicide of Cecilia Lisbon, the youngest of five gorgeous blonde daughters to a local school teacher and his wife. The suicide causes the family to become social pariahs, and as they struggle with their grief and the shame of bringing a dark and abnormal event to their community, the family find themselves watched from behind closed curtains by the very society who has made them outcasts.
It is through the prying eyes of a group of school boys that we see the fates of the members of the Lisbon family played out. The book is written retrospectively from the point of view of a group of boys who went to school with the Lisbon girls, and have since grown into middle aged men. This is the first stroke of genius from Eugenides. By writing in the voice of a group (“We learned only years later”) the reader gets to experience events from the point of view of the community - the denial, manic obsession, and general lack of understanding as the suicides play out.
That other Lisbon girls die should come as no surprise, given the plural in the book’s title, and it is with this knowledge that Eugenides makes his second stroke of genius in emotionally manipulating the reader. As the reader knows what is coming, they’re left with a queasy sense of unease and almost a sense of self-disgust for following something so grim. It’s the same sort of unease you might get from watching a gruesome TV crime drama. We know what is coming but we can’t look away.
The Virgin Suicides establishes Eugenides as a skilled author who can evoke a world in succinct sentences. He’s one of those writers who is very sensory and this is what gives his work a realism. Everywhere he takes you, you know what the place smells like, tastes like and sounds like as much as what it looks like. I respect a writer who doesn’t make the reader chase after long waffly sentences without sacrificing atmosphere. And this book is certainly atmospheric. The oppressive sense of impending doom is there from the start – in the opening pages you almost feel like you are entering into a supernatural thriller. His dark descriptions of the family home also bring to mind Flowers in the Attic, which I read as a teenager and can barely remember aside from a vivid atmosphere of gloom. I expect The Virgin Suicides will be just as haunting, and will stay with me for years to come.