Reviews: The Virgin Suicides

The best written novel to have left me unmoved

The Virgin Suicides is the epitome of a work I have to admire but cannot love, impeccable execution of a fatally flawed idea. Jeffrey Eugenides is an amazing writer, from anyone else such an unusual novel would be unreadable. It has no discernible thread, lets you know what's coming, and is told through small side details, at times just lists of junk items. It is at once a realistically messy account and an allegorical fable. Yet good as the writing is at evoking people and communities, it could not give emotional torque to what should be a tragic account of multiple suicides.

A tragedy is not just bad things happening; it works by presenting a sympathetic, believable character whose flaws are crucial to their downfall. Yet however I look at the Lisbon girls' deaths, there is an unsympathetic villain on which I must pin the blame: Mrs Lisbon.

She is a puritanical, reactionary Christian fanatic, with an apathetic husband, who takes any defiance from her daughters as a cue to ramp up control. This did not make their suicides inevitable, as the narrator makes clear, but once she withdraws them from school and stops cooking meals, there would be no happy resolution and her family was lost one way or another. Her daughters' fate seemed a mere outgrowth of the real tragedy, how her obsession to raise the perfect family betrayed and robbed her. But because she had little focus, I could not feel her motives and thoughts, even though I'm sure such a person could exist. And I could not understand why nobody puts any blame on the couple in-universe, which undermines the plausibility.

If only she was the core of the story, or the suicides were a collective responsibility, or if it lived up to the blurb's promise of disastrous consequences for the suburb as it obsesses over what happened (really it just amounts to hand-wringing and failing to find easy answers)... From such a skilled author the novel would have been powerful indeed.

The novel's core theme is that the girls represent a passing era of American suburbia, but I am not close enough to find traction in that setting and it is not so alien that I had that much to learn. I cannot recommend against this novel, it may have more sway on others, and the prose is pleasant and often intriguing, but for me it lacked a quality that could leave me affected after finishing it.
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