real girl sadness in the virgin suicides
by rosie lovoi
When you read a lot of books, you get asked often what your favorite is. Although that’s a difficult question to answer, and I think most people’s response varies at different points in their lives, one book I always return to is The Virgin Suicides. Jeffrey Eugenides’ first novel is twenty-five years old as of 2018, only outliving me by three years. I read the book sometime in high school; I have literally no memory of how I came across it, but it changed the way I thought of what makes a good book, and it has stayed with me since.
As a warning, I’m going to talk about some pretty major spoilers here. The novel tells the story of the Lisbon sisters, five girls growing up Catholic and very sheltered in a suburb of Detroit. Ranging from ages thirteen to seventeen, they span some of the most difficult years of a girl’s life, from the start of puberty to the brink of adulthood. The book opens with the violent and traumatic attempted suicide – and then actual suicide – of the youngest sister, Cecilia. After this, the Lisbon parents try to draw the girls closer, a reaction which, as anyone who has been a teenager will know, only results in more tension in the home and desire on the part of the girls to get out. The story follows the sisters, focusing on 14-year-old Lux, as they discover pop culture, sexuality, and how difficult it is to be a girl. As the boys of the neighborhood, who narrate the story, become increasingly fascinated by and in love with the Lisbon sisters, and the girls are more and more locked away by their puritanical mother and distant father, the story goes the direction in which it sometimes seems all good stories about strong women go: the girls invite the boys into the house, only for them to discover that the remaining four sisters have all now also killed themselves.
I have found that it’s very rare for a male author, no matter how good of a writer he is, to really capture the experience of girlhood. Eugenides is an exception, and what differentiates his novel is the unusual method of narration. He does not try to get into the head of a depressed teenage girl and speak from her perspective, a method which would fail no matter what because he simply cannot comprehend that mindset. Instead, he narrates through what he knows: young suburban boys, mirroring the girls in age but very little else. The narrator is an elusive group, never named as an individual; in fact, it seems that at some point every member of the group of boys is mentioned separately, making it impossible to nail down who really is speaking. The girlhood of the Lisbon sisters is watched – and never judged – through the general eyes of boyhood. Somehow through that unbiased perspective Eugenides is able to show what makes the lives of the girls so hard: they are overly protected by their parents, they are allowed little to no freedoms in discovering their interests or talents, and they are forced into a web of emotional connection so tight that they are hardly individuals. The boys recognize how these basic facts of the Lisbon girls’ lives contrast so starkly with their own lives as they play sports and listen to the radio and run around the neighborhood until dark.
It’s interesting too to contrast the five sisters with another famous set of five literary sisters, the Bennet girls in Pride and Prejudice. Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia live with perhaps too much freedom, as they are often reminded by their uppity peers. Their mother has nearly no moral compass, whereas Mrs. Lisbon takes the idea of morality to a detrimental extreme. But the Bennet girls, through their excessive freedom, find themselves; they make stupid mistakes, embarrass their family, and at times hurt themselves and those they love, but they are able to learn from and right their wrongs. The Lisbon sisters are not given this freedom; they are never given the chance to mess up and redeem themselves, so they decide it’s better to just stop trying. What a dark, difficult, and confusing decision for teenage girls to make. When looking at so much other good literature about women, it’s common for independent heroines to be backed into suicidal corners – think Antigone, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, The Awakening, among others. The Lisbon girls are part of a literary lineage, but they’re unique in how tight their bond to one another is.
Maybe you’ve seen Sofia Coppola’s 1999 film version of The Virgin Suicides, but I’ll always argue that the book is better and worth reading. People generally want to push that about books and their movie adaptations, but this is a case where I think there are real reasons for it. Because the book is so psychological, watching it on a screen seems to make it a lot harder for the viewer to get into the minds of the narrator-boys; by placing images of the sisters in front of our eyes, they become simply pre- and pubescent girls, rather than hovering as representations of complex psychological states like they do in the book. Even through descriptions, Eugenides keeps the Lisbon sisters mysterious and not quite like other teenage girls. Kirsten Dunst acting as Lux just doesn’t have the same unexplainable quality as her character does in words printed on a page. The same goes for the girls’ actual suicides. Eugenides describes each one separately and clearly, yet they seem almost symbolic of what the boys, the whole time, had been missing. When literally depicted on a screen, they feel cheapened somehow. When this story is told through images that mimic real life, it loses its impact because viewers are too concerned with what they see; it was made to be read so readers can really empathize with the psychological struggle in the girls’ lives.
"But what I’ve realized over the years is that all teenage girls struggle with the same problems as the Lisbon sisters; circumstances are different, and the girls’ psychological states are far more extreme than most peoples, but the issues are real and should not be dismissed as dark fantasies."
When I tell others about this book, I feel a need to justify the darkness of its story and assure whoever I’m talking to that I don’t like it for that but rather just because it’s so well-written and different. But what I’ve realized over the years is that all teenage girls struggle with the same problems as the Lisbon sisters; circumstances are different, and the girls’ psychological states are far more extreme than most peoples, but the issues are real and should not be dismissed as dark fantasies. History has a habit of dismissing young girls’ deep and unexplainable sadness as illegitimate, but Eugenides took it seriously from the perspective he had available. What he produced is a lasting analysis of the community that girls create and the reality of girls’ sadness.
author, rosie lovoi
Rosie is a member of the Gold Hand Journalism Team
Hi!! My name is Rosemary - Rosie for short - and I’m one of Gold Hand Girls’ new bloggers! I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but moved to Indiana to study at the University of Notre Dame. Of all the things in the world, I love reading the most, but after that probably comes anything sweet (see picture for proof). I’m beyond excited to be writing for Gold Hand Girls. Spreading support for creative girls is so important to me, and I’m thrilled to be part of that mission. Stay tuned for posts on cool girl bands, books, and more!
graphics, averi campbell
Averi is a member of the Gold Hand Creative Team
Averi Campbell is an art student, multi-musician, and all around music enthusiast. Any indie garage band or badass girl band puts her in a daze, and that sound has carried over into the music she creates herself. Music and art have played a huge role in her life and she is very fortunate to have encountered so many fearless and driven women, both in the arts and music industry, all which have impacted the woman and artist she is today.