Sunday, April 24, 2016

THE VIRGIN SUICIDES by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Lisbon family has five alluring young daughters, until one, Cecilia, succeeds in killing herself on the second try.  We know that the remaining four will follow suit within a year, and this novel is all about looking back on that year.  Our unidentified narrator(s) track the sisters’ grief and the ever-tightening lockdown imposed by the girls’ parents.  The fact that the girls become increasingly less visible in the community only adds to the intrigue surrounding them, as does the spooky decline of their untended house.  Much of the story is told in a voyeuristic manner, from the outside looking in, with the viewers hoping for a rare appearance by one of the Lisbon girls, with the help of a mostly ineffective telescope.  I totally do not understand the appeal of this novel, except that it is sort of darkly comic.  Also, I can’t fathom how the parents get away with keeping their daughters out of school and basically keeping them imprisoned in their home.  Even in the 1970s there were truant officers and social services.  The parents themselves become so reclusive that Mr. Lisbon stops teaching his classes at the high school, and the family has to raid the shelves of their bomb shelter for food.  I don’t get the title, either, since the most well-drawn of the daughters, Lux, is wildly promiscuous.  I know that Lux means “light,” but the name strikes me more in its similarity to the word “lust.”  The book is largely about the town, especially the boys, for whom the demise of the Lisbon family provides fodder for their adolescent curiosity and imagination.  I suspect that there is quite a bit of symbolism at work here, related to dying things (fish flies and elm trees), virgin sacrifices, the Virgin Mary and who knows what else.  (One of the Lisbon girls is named Mary.)   My favorite scene in the book is a telephone conversation in which popular songs express the sentiments of the participants on both ends of the line.  “On the stereo, Garfunkel began hitting his high notes, and we didn’t think of Cecilia.”  Cecilia, the character, or “Cecilia” the song?  I like the ambiguity, but it’s not enough to make me like this book.  

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