A startling, depressing, funny, painful glimpse into teenaged angst, The Virgin Suicides is Eugenides’ first novel and well-written but not a comfortable read. If you expect deep psychological insights into the phenomenon of suicide, you’ll be disappointed. Instead, the author reflects on adolescence, loss, regret, and the all too swift passage of time.
One learns right from the beginning that the five teenaged daughters of the Lisbon family have all killed themselves, and with that horrifying fact now out in the open, the author proceeds to pull back the lens and examine the small and well-to-do but declining Michigan town of Grosse Point where the suicides took place (and where the author grew up). The Lisbons were a repressed uber-Catholic family, with a wimpy father who teaches in the local high school and a mother whose terror of the big bad outside world translated into denying her daughters any social outlets that would have enabled them to survive outside the home. Because the sisters are an isolated entity unto themselves, the teenaged boys of the town become obsessed with them and turn them in their imaginations either into ethereal creatures who need protecting or love goddesses who need… well, you get it.
The story is told from the viewpoint of an unnamed member of the sisters’ fan club, all of whom have now grown into middle-age but remain haunted by the Lisbon girls. We observe through their eyes as the sisters attempt but fail to shatter the glass wall between themselves and life on the outside, and their eventual decision to resort to the final escape. We watch as the girls’ dead-eyed parents turn into recluses, their house –once the focal point of every town boy’s wet dream—now mouldering around them, until they eventually sneak out of town in dead of night.
The town’s failure to intervene before the suicides, and its short-lived discomfort after the fact, brings the hollowness of suburban life to the fore even as the boys—now men—find themselves forever incapable of coming to grips with the most dramatic event of their young lives. They interview residents of the town, and even the girls’ mother, and paw endlessly through the detritus of the girls’ lives, leaving the reader wondering who the real victims of the Lisbon tragedy really were.