The Virgin Suicides, set in a small town in the 1950s, is told from the collective viewpoint of some men as they retell the story of their adolescence back when they lived opposite the five Lisbon sisters who all eventually committed suicide. This novel is expertly crafted and is told from one of the most unique points of view I have ever read from. More than being a novel discussing the dark and unsettling themes of suicide, it is a luminous story about nostalgia, mystery and loss of innocence.
I thought the premise of this novel was ingenious: a novel that tells the story of five young girls who are going through such difficult times that they all commit suicide, however we never learn anything about it from the perspectives of the girls themselves, just the people witnessing it all. The small town setting in which the novel was set leant itself perfectly to the story, and I loved witnessing all the different neighbours and the ways they interacted with one another as things surrounding the Lisbon house grew strange. I thoroughly enjoyed the perspective that this novel was told from; it was fascinating and extremely unique. Because it was told from the point of view of these men retelling the story from their youth the narration was completely unreliable, not only because it was made up of lots of different information from lots of different places over a long period of time – the men spoke to many people from the village to try and piece together what exactly happened to the Lisbon sisters, combined with what they themselves remembered – but it was also unreliable as the men when they were younger had loved and even idolised the Lisbon sisters, and this clearly tinged the narrative. This was extremely interesting to read about.
The main aspect that I loved about this novel was certainly its writing. The atmosphere that Jeffrey Eugenides creates surrounding the village in which all the characters lived is so powerful and wonderful – sleepy and sultry – and throughout reading I felt completely transported to the place in which it was set. The descriptions in the novel were also extremely rich and detailed to the just the right degree. One of the aspects of the writing that really stood out to me was the many sensory descriptions that were used, especially to do with colours and smell, which evoked many strong reactions from me whilst I was reading.
While I did enjoy many of the aspects of this novel, and as well-crafted as it certainly was, I did feel uncomfortable while reading certain points of the novel and was left feeling rather unsure once I had finished it. There was such blatant romanticising and even sexualisation of the girls throughout – who were both clearly depressed and very young – and this was something I could not get over whilst I read the novel. It is clear that this novel is less about the girls and their suicides than the experiences of the men retelling their stories, and all the complications and complexities that come with childhood reminiscence and nostalgia, and so the novel was never going to accurately present the girls’ situations. And I do understand that this was the point. Nevertheless, I did not find the romanticism of the girls’ situations acceptable whilst I read – it read as something beautiful, sexual and glamorous – and whether or not the men realised this was not in fact accurate, I still found this portrayal of mental illnesses to be incredibly worrying and dangerous.
Overall, I am a torn about how I feel about this novel. It was absolutely brilliant in many ways, and was certainly one of the best written and well-crafted novels I have read in a very long time. Jeffrey Eugenides certainly has a gift with words and creating really powerful, evocative atmospheres, and I would love to read some more of his work in the future. That being said, while the themes in this novel were fascinating and approached in a really unique and intriguing way, I did find them to be quite unsettling – and even unacceptable – due to the ways they were presented. It is fair to say that I have never been left so confused about how I feel about a novel!