First person plural…

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

virgin suicidesTwo things prompted me to promote this novel, which had been in my bedside TBR bookcase for ages, to the top of the pile.

Firstly, although not written for teens, I cited it in the post I wrote trying to comprehend the current vogue for suicide-lit in teen novels (see here).

Secondly, after reading reviews of Weightless by Sarah Bannan by Victoria at Shiny and Harriet on her blog. (I desperately want to read this book now!) Weightless is not about teen suicide, although it does appear quite dark – but it is written in that rarest of styles – the “first person plural” – as is The Virgin Suicides

This novel was Eugenides’ 1993 debut – a very daring one at that.  Fancy publishing as your first novel a story about a family of five unconventional teenaged sisters who commit suicide and told from the collective point of view of the group of teenaged boys who had worshipped them wanted to get into their pants!  It hits you right from the start:

On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese – the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope. They got out of the EMS truck, as usual moving much too slowly in our opinion, and the fat one said under his breath, ‘This ain’t TV, folks, this is how hast we go.’  He was carrying the heavy respirator and cardiac unit past the bushes that had grown monstrous and over the erupting lawn, tame and immaculate thirteen months earlier when the trouble began.

We’re then told of Cecilia’s first attempt at suicide, slitting her wrists in the bath. Cecilia, at thirteen the youngest of the Lisbon girls, survived this. She gets patched up in hospital:

“What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.”
And it was then Cecilia gave orally what was to be her only form of suicide note, and a useless one at that, because she was going to live: “Obviously, Doctor,” she said, “you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.”

The Lisbons’ five daughters were born a year apart. Somehow I couldn’t help but mentally compare the family to the Bennets in Pride & Prejudice!  The girls are very close-knit, and Lux (14) is definitely a Lydia-type. Mr Lisbon is a maths teacher at the local high school, perplexed by his five daughters, so not unlike Mr Bennet in that regard. Mrs Lisbon is the antithesis of the flighty and voluble Mrs Bennet though – she is steely, closed and authoritarian, a strict Catholic – and to be honest we never find out much more about her. Mr Lisbon is a maths teacher at the local high school, and seems to be liked well-enough there, but is totally under the thumb at home. But enough of the Austen comparison!

The Lisbon family kept themselves to themselves. The girls weren’t allowed out on their own, and weren’t generally allowed to have guests home either. No wonder the girls are the subject of speculation and a challenge to the local teenaged male population. A while after Cecilia returns home from hospital, Mr Lisbon persuades his wife to let the girls have a chaperoned party at home – the first and only one they’ll have. Their friends and neighbours join the girls in the basement and things are getting going when Cecilia, wearing a cut-down vintage wedding dress, quietly asks to go upstairs – and defenestrates herself, impaling her body on the railings.

This is the beginning of the end really, although it will take a year before the other girls follow suit. The family is never the same, Mrs Lisbon is even more closed in, Mr Lisbon becomes an emotional wreck, their house starts to get shabbier and shabbier. The girls close ranks too whether by choice or confinement. Only Lux has a wild, feral air about her – sneaking out at night to have assignations with countless partners on the roof. Then the anniversary of Cecilia’s death approaches… naturally I can’t tell you more about what happens.

All the while the boys watch and talk about the Lisbon girls. They collect anything to do with the girls, from the news articles after Cecilia’s and later the others’ deaths, to Lux’s discarded album sleeves, to copies of medical reports later smuggled out for them. These items form a catalogue –  ‘The Record of Physical Evidence’ as they try to come to terms with and understand the events of that tragic thirteen months. Everyone has their own theory about why they did it, but will they ever really know?

VirginSuicidesPosterThere is a dreamlike quality to this novel, contrasting sharply with the events within. I remember that feeling came across very well in Sofia Coppola’s feature-film debut – she wrote and directed. Kirsten Dunst (having turned down American Beauty) was troubled teen Lux, with James Woods and Kathleen Turner as Mr and Mrs Lisbon. I must watch it again, I remember it as rather good.

I read Eugenides’ epic second novel Middlesex pre-blog – I remember finding it rather drawn out (in the same way as Donna Tartt to me). The Virgin Suicides is much shorter, coming in at just under 250 pages. If you think that makes for a fast-paced read though, think again. Although it’s not long, the months between the bookending events are explored in much detail. This does make for a slightly flabby middle – as  the boys recount the events in hindsight, collect their evidence and present it to us through their team leader narrator. We never get to know which one of them narrates and we never get to know how long after the events they’re actually telling the story. If you’re looking for answers and resolution, this isn’t a novel to give them to you – in fact it’ll leave you with more questions.

The Virgin Suicides certainly marked the emergence of a great new American writing talent though, and I enjoyed it very much. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, 4th Estate paperback, 260 pages.
The Virgin Suicides [DVD] [2000] dir Sofia Coppola.

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15 thoughts on “First person plural…

  1. Funnily enough I hadn’t seriously considered reading this before your excellent review, Annabel, but thinking that it might be similar to Weightless has made me feel very interested in it! I was so glad that Harriet enjoyed Weightless too – it’s a fantastic novel and I’m really keen to know how you get on with it. The third person plural sounds like an impossible narrative perspective, but I’m convinced now that in the right place, it really works.

    • I’ve now realised that its really first person plural as in ‘we’ rather than ‘they’ – although the narrator does tell us what they did. However it is, it works!

  2. I read Virgin Suicides when it first came out, and it is still one of my favorite books. The author was inspired by a true story–he had met an educated, upper middle class, beautiful 20 year old girl who happened to mention to him that her sister had committed suicide recently and that since then she and one or two of the other sisters had also made suicide attempts. The book has a unique, lyrical quality that is unsurpassed. Anyone who “gets” the book should also see the excellent movie, directed by Sophia Coppola.

  3. Excellent piece Annabel. I read this years ago when it first came out and remember loving the atmosphere. It was a strange, troubling book which, as you say, asked more questions than it answered – but that was perhaps its strength. And I hadn’t quite appreciated how unusual the third person plural was, but it definitely worked here! 🙂

  4. I struggled with this when it came out and it became a book I abandoned before I even got half way. I felt at the time that I couldn’t get into the character of Mr Lisbon – it was almost as if I needed him to make sense of the story and I just didn’t connect with him at all! Your review makes me think I might have missed out on a great book as a result – I still have my copy on my shelves so I might steel myself for a second go at this.

  5. Col – maybe you should give it another go… (or watch the film). Mr Lisbon struggles to be a man, surrounded as he is by females. The middle does drag slightly, given that you know how it ends from the first paragraph, but it’s the boys’ collective view – not the Lisbons’…

  6. Great review, Annabel. I read this novel several years ago (just before the release of the film) and the dreamlike feel of the story still lingers in my mind. As a reader, I recall feeling as though I was sitting at the bottom of the approach to the Lisbon’s house watching everything unfold but powerless to intervene in any way. A terrific debut.

  7. A great review! I loved this book and still remember the effect it had on me, even though it was some time ago. Yesterday I went to see The Falling, a British film about mass hysteria, although not suicides. I felt the film had lots of failings, but it is such an intriguing subject. (And there’s also Picnic at Hanging Rock.)

    • It’s a definite keeper and I really want to see the film again.

      I was wondering about going to see The Falling … not sure. However Megan Abbott’s recent book The Fever was about mass hysteria too – that was very well done and built up into quite a mystery with a kick in the tail.

  8. You’ve reminded me of how much I love this book. Wonderful review.

    I remember reading this in my early 20s and getting sucked into the obsession with the group of boys, how those girls forever haunted them is just so out there and so within the realms of reasons. Things we can’t have or change so often keep our minds hostage.

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